Editorial: Unsung Heroes of Fairfax County Police Reform

Editorial: Unsung Heroes of Fairfax County Police Reform

Personal involvement of Culosi, Beltrante key to success of police commission.

The call for reform and transparency in Fairfax County Police began long before the shooting death of John Geer in August 2013. Some members of the Fairfax County Police Practices Review Commission pressed for reform for nearly a decade before the formation of the commission. Their experience also should answer any question about whether reform was really needed.

Anita and Sal Culosi lost their son Dr. Salvatore “Sal” Culosi Jr. when he was killed by a Fairfax County Police officer Jan. 24, 2006 outside his Fair Oaks townhouse by a SWAT team member executing a search warrant. Police knew Culosi was unarmed and did not consider him dangerous. The shooting was ruled an accident and the officer faced no charges.

“My son would still be alive today,” Culosi said at the first meeting of the commission in March 2015, “but for 2006 Fairfax County policies to routinely use SWAT and aggressive procedures against citizens certified to be low risk.”

Culosi Sr. told members of the commission that David M. Rohrer told him that use of force policy changes had been made since his son’s shooting, but that Rohrer declined to give him copies of the changes or tell him exactly what changes were made. Rohrer, now deputy county executive for public safety was Fairfax County police chief when Culosi Jr. was killed.

As the commission began its work, Police Chief Edwin Roessler and Rohrer among others, embraced Sal Culosi Sr.’s involvement, and worked with him on many details of policy changes ranging from how SWAT teams are deployed to “ready gun position.” New policies were developed with his input, are available to the public and mark significant improvements.

NICHOLAS R. BELTRANTE, a retired D.C. homicide detective and Mount Vernon resident, founded Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability in 2010 in response to the shooting death of unarmed David A. Masters who was shot and killed by a Fairfax County Police officer on Richmond Highway and Fort Hunt Road on Nov. 13, 2009. Masters, a former U.S. Army Green Beret, struggled with mental health issues.

Beltrante decried the secrecy surrounding the Masters and Culosi cases among others, and began advocating for the formation of a civilian review panel.

He wrote to the Connection in 2012:

“During the years 2010-2011, the CCPA has directed a number of letters to Chief David M. Rohrer regarding these and other citizen allegations of police abuse, misconduct, and negligence. These letters have gone unanswered. As a result the CCPA began in January 2012 mailing letters of complaint to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova with the understanding they would be forwarded to Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland, the board's Public Safety Committee chairman, for appropriate action. In recent weeks the CCPA has written to Supervisor Hyland in an effort to determine what action, if any, he had taken. To-date, we have not heard from Supervisor Hyland.

“The apparent lack of accountability by various entities of the Fairfax County Government regarding these serious issues has caused many citizens grave concern and some have expressed their frustration by indicating their belief this may constitute a case of malfeasance.”

Beltrante noted that no one, including the families of the deceased victims, had been able to obtain a police incident report despite the fact that the four cases were closed.

The establishment of a civilian review panel and an independent police auditor, both approved last year by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, plus changes in policies about use of force, transparency and crisis intervention, among many others, are major accomplishments.

The Culosis and Beltrante began the call for such changes many years before the death of John Geer. Geer’s best friend, Jeff Stewart, also served on the Ad Hoc Commission. Stewart was present on the scene when his friend was shot dead. Stewart’s voice was also critical on the commission. The personal involvement of these families and individuals in the process, plus the new openness of leadership in the FCPD, made all the difference.

— Mary Kimm