It was my intention to dedicate this week’s column either to the adventure of running the Reston Farmers Market during Covid-19 or the whereabouts of the RA CEO. As you see, I am doing neither. I cannot ignore the endless police brutality and killing with impunity of people of color. And, I fear it could happen here. Images of shocking brutality on black people by rogue cops keep coming, courtesy of videos by ubiquitous cell phone videos. The latest from Kenosha, Wis. shows an officer holding Jacob Blake and pumping seven bullets into his back beside a car with Blake’s three young children inside. Then we see footage of rioting in Kenosha as police stand by watching, and even socializing a white man with an assault rifle he allegedly used to spray bullets at protesters, killing two of them. A few weeks before that we watched a Minneapolis officer execute George Floyd, asphyxiating him face down in the street with a knee in his back. Will the officers be held accountable for these vile acts? Not if history is our guide.
Floyd’s killing resulted in massive protests all over the USA. In some cases, protests were followed by small groups rioting and looting, criminal acts using the peaceful protests as camouflage for destruction and robbery. These acts by thugs, among them white supremacists and others encouraged by the right, deserve condemnation by us all and prosecution to the full extent of the law. Law breakers’ violent acts divert attention from the urgent need to reform the police and, as Joe Biden says, not to defund them. End immunity, restore community!
Fairfax County worked to reform our Police Department in 2015, following public uproar over the unprovoked killing of a white resident and a subsequent coverup. I served on the Ad Hoc Commission created to review police practices. The Commission unanimously adopted over 200 recommendations for transformation of the force. Since then, there has been progress, e.g., improved police training, new use of force regs, and better public information. However, key recommendations were not adopted by the Board of Supervisors. Others stalled in implementation, e.g., adoption of body-worn cameras for police officers.
The most crucial shortcomings, ones that make the community vulnerable to continued police impunity, were the Board of Supervisors’ failure to adopt recommendations for independent investigation of police use of force and killings. The Commission recommended the County provide funding for both the Commonwealth Attorney and the Civilian Review Panel to contract independent investigators responsible to them, not to the other police officers. Without these reforms, police remain accountable to investigation only by fellow officers for killings and other use of force misdeeds. Without corrective action by the Board, impunity lives on in our Police Department.
Another shortcoming in the reform effort is the failure of the Police Department to recruit, hire, and promote woefully under-represented minority officers, especially blacks and Latinos, to assure that the force resembles the community it serves. Despite assurances of recruiting in minority areas and the formation of a special diversity advisory group to the Chief, blacks and Latinos are just as under-represented in hiring and promotions to management levels as they were in 2015. One excuse I hear is: they just aren’t interested in being police officers. That is surprising considering that officer salaries start around $55,000. Again, one wonders when will the Board take corrective action?
Finally, there is the matter of the impunity in the other law enforcement agency of Fairfax County. The Sheriff’s office, with 600 uniformed deputies, is a constitutionally independent unit which did not agree to participate in the reform process. It is the same outfit that in 2015 brutally tasered Natasha McKenna, a mentally ill black prisoner, to death while taking her from her cell to a vehicle for transfer to another jurisdiction. In this case, an official video was released for all to see. An “investigation” by County Police determined that none of the Sheriff’s staff was at fault. The steel blue curtain promptly closed. In this case, reform cannot be mandated by the Board of Supervisors. Reform falls to Sheriff Kincaid.