Opinion: Independent Progressive: Police Reform in Fairfax—Four Years Later

Opinion: Independent Progressive: Police Reform in Fairfax—Four Years Later

It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since the Ad Hoc Commission to Review Police Practices submitted its final report to Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors. The 202 unanimously agreed recommendations contained therein, if fully implemented as intended by the 40-member Commission, would be transformative of our Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD). While transformation would be an exaggeration of what has been accomplished so far, the progress to date is remarkable, thanks in no small measure to the leadership of Police Chief Edwin Roessler.

The Commission created by the Board of Supervisors in early 2015, fifteen months after an officer’s fatal shooting of unarmed John Geer, divided its report into five areas: Communications, Recruitment & Diversity, Mental Health, Use of Force, and Independent Oversight & Investigations. In the 75 years since the Police Department was created, the men in blue controlled all that went on behind the steel blue curtain. Transparency and civilian review were foreign concepts. So, there was tension on a Commission made up of one-third police, including heavy hitters. Our unanimous decisions reflect their presence.

What has been accomplished? Nearly all recommendations to improve Communications, i.e., public information on police operations, have been implemented, including installing a civilian chief of communications. At times getting out information on police shootings still is delayed, but it gets out. Transparency does not come easily in a Department with five would-be police unions, but forward movement to date is impressive. Diversity, however, is the one area where there has been almost zero progress. The Police Department is not representative of the County it serves — especially in hiring and promoting Latinos and African Americans. The county is nearly 10 percent black and 16 percent Latino, but the Force is just over 7 percent black and 4 percent Latino, and worse higher up. It’s hard to believe minorities don’t apply for and cannot qualify for entry level positionss paying $55,000. The Chief says bad press for cops these days is a main obstacle. That may be, but institutional resistance also certainly plays a role.

Mental Health - a success! Persons with mental illness frequently conflict with police officers, usually involving minor offenses (e.g., disorderly conduct), sometimes with tragic consequences. Half of all fatal shootings by law enforcement involve people with mental illness. Officers are ill prepared to identify persons in crisis much less manage encounters with them. Their only option for resolution is arrest and incarceration in the county jail, a lockup filled with people in crisis.

Crisis Intervention Training for all officers and a Diversion First program providing facilities to assess and treat (vs. jail) the mentally ill were adopted and are underway.

Use Of Force. Appropriately, 87 of 202 Commission recommendations involve use of force. They include adopting a new philosophy-the Sanctity of Life as the guiding principle for new police policy and practices.

Policies and practices were reviewed and have been overhauled to include de-escalation in confrontations, prompt reporting stressing transparency, emphasis of less lethal techniques, and employing new technologies (e.g., late model tasers and body cameras for all officers). Implementation is nearly complete.

New tasers are now on the way, and long-delayed body cameras are expected to be approved for funding by County Supervisors this month. FCPD could be a topnotch, more humane force if these Use of Force reforms fully sink in. Perhaps John Geer did not die in vain!

A final area, Independent Oversight and Investigation, has met strong resistance from police. Three activities were proposed. A recommendation to build independent investigative capacity with the Commonwealth Attorney was killed by the Supervisors.

However, the Independent Police Auditor (IPA) is in place and reviewing all officer involved shootings, deaths and serious injury investigations conducted by the Internal Affairs Bureau.

Last, the proposed Civilian Review Panel is in place to accept public complaints about police abuse of authority, hear them and review police investigations of them. CRP’s power was diluted in the approval process. Still, the creation of the CRP and the IPA mark truly historical turning points in drawing back the steel blue curtain.

More at https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/policecivilianreviewpanel/complaint-process