An independent study of Fairfax County Police Department use of force confirmed that Black people are overrepresented in use-of-force incidents by Fairfax police.
African-American people were also 1.8 times more likely to have a weapon pointed at them, and are more at risk of force being used against them during arrests, according to the report.
“What’s really concerning is when you have a consistent message or consistent story that the data tell you. And so, for African-Americans, you saw they were overrepresented across four of the six benchmarks, you saw they were overrepresented in four of the six multivariate severity models, and you saw they were overrepresented in the arrest model,” said Dr. Michael R. Smith, of the University of Texas at San Antonio, who is the co-author of the research project, “An Investigation of the Use of Force by the Fairfax County Police Department.” Smith is also a former Fairfax County police officer.
“That’s the kind of consistent story that I think is ripe for conversation and particularly for directed mechanisms to address,” Smith told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors during a Public Safety Committee meeting on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
The previous Board of Supervisors directed the study to better understand the influence of civilian race and ethnicity and other factors that impact use of force, said Rodney Lusk, chairman of the Board’s Public Safety Committee.
Smith and his colleagues Dr. Rob Tillyer, from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Dr. Robin S. Engel from the University of Cincinnati, examined data from 1,360 encounters with civilians when force was used by Fairfax officers during 2016-2018.
“As we heard from advocates within our community and from our citizens at large across the county, there exists a sense that force is disproportionately applied against members of the African-American community and the Hispanic communities here in Fairfax County,” said Lusk. “I believe the data that this report lays out is a solid first step in understanding the underlying reasons for that sentiment and will act as a compass and guide us forward as we work to address inequities in our public safety and criminal justice infrastructure.”
According to the report, “Broken down by race and ethnicity, the Fairfax County Police Department used force against 576 Black persons (42 percent), 519 white persons (38 percent), 218 Hispanic persons (16 percent), and 45 Asian persons (three percent) that took place between Jan. 1, 2016 and Dec. 31, 2018. Average force levels were slightly higher for Blacks (2.4 on a 4.0 scale) than for other racial groups (2.1 for Whites, 2.2 of Hispanics, 2.0 for Asians), while resistance levels were essentially equal across the racial and ethnic groups.”
THE RESEARCH TEAM condensed the 275-page report down to a 40-minute presentation.
Some key findings verbatim, included:
“Force used against Blacks exceeded all benchmarks and was disproportionate compared to whites in Mount Vernon. Blacks also experienced consistently higher rates of force compared to benchmarks in Franconia, McLean and West Springfield.
“Hispanics were overrepresented as subjects of force in Sully & Mason (3 of 6 benchmarks).
“Rates of force used against Asians exceeded benchmarks in Mount Vernon, Reston, West Springfield and Fair Oaks.
“Force used against minority civilians exceeded that of whites in Sully (Hispanics), Mount Vernon (Blacks & Asians), McLean (Blacks & Asians), Mason (Hispanics), Reston (Asians), Franconia (Blacks), West Springfield (Blacks & Asians), and Fair Oaks (Asians).”
Breaking down the data by district stations “revealed some differences from the countywide findings,” according to Smith, Tillyer and Engel. “For example, in Mount Vernon, the rates of force used against Black civilians exceeded all benchmarks, and force was used disproportionately against Blacks relative to whites in four of the six benchmarks examined. Blacks also experienced force at rates that consistently exceeded the benchmark comparisons in Franconia, McLean, and West Springfield.”
“In the end, data does matter. It does help us to see things as they are, maybe not as we wish they were, or even as we perceive they are,” said Mount Vernon Supervisor Daniel Storck.
“Obviously, Mount Vernon’s District Station’s results are very concerning, deeply concerning to me. We are actually served by three stations and all three of them have issues of overuse,” he said.
DEMOGRAPHICS were not considered by the scientists because they “are a very poor indicator of risk of a particular group having force used against them. It’s common in the media and other outlets but it’s not appropriate from a scientific perspective,” said Tillyer.
For example, according to this, it would not make sense to note the disparity of Black people making up 42 percent of Fairfax police use of force while being just 10 percent of the population. Or that white people make up 50 percent of the population but just 38 percent of police use of force.
During the question and answer portion of the committee meeting, Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity (R) said he hoped the Board would make note of the research team’s opinion.
“We regularly publish that,” said Herrity. “I’ve been asking for a caveat to that.”
But Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn disagreed. “I realize that you’re saying social scientists don’t measure looking at population. I do,” he said.
“I think it’s very important for all our public services, particularly those related to law enforcement, that we do watch that. We have to. That’s speaking as an elected official, not as a social scientist,” said Alcorn.
The Connection reported that Black people made up 38.54 percent of the arrests in 2019, according to statistics provided by the police in 2020. Black people were targets of police use of force 45.63 percent of the time in the county. Black people make up approximately 10 percent of the population. Black people are arrested and the subject of police force disproportionately more.
THE 275-PAGE REPORT included 12 pages of recommendations the Board will discuss at its next Public Safety Committee meeting in September.
One recommendation included capturing all instances of force and resistance sequentially during each encounter involving the use of force.
“Capturing the uses of force and resistance sequentially, so what happened first, then what happened, then what happened next, is sort of state of the art,” said Smith. “It’s where the field is going and where the police department’s data collection ought to go.
“That will provide us the ability to have a much more nuanced and greater understanding of how these events transpire. How do some escalate quickly, how do some not escalate quickly, or how do they escalate. That’s the kind of data you need to answer such important questions.”
Substantially increase the amount of training hours provided annually for de-escalation skills and tactics.
Adopt a single, clear standard for the use of deadly force – Deadly force is permissible only if the suspect poses an imminent risk of death or serious injury to the officer or others.
Consider limiting canine bites only to certain types of crimes or other narrowly-defined conditions
Utilize body-worn camera footage to evaluate racial/ethnic disparities in treatment by the FCPD, force escalation or de-escalation, and to improve training and accountability
Other recommendations included more extensive deescalation training; rotating officers from higher crime areas; improving the ability to “capture” medical and injury data for civilians and officers.
POLICE CHIEF Kevin Davis said “at least a third” of the examined uses of force involved the pointing of a firearm by a police officer.
“That’s loud and clear to us,” Davis told the Board. “Why is that happening and what can we do to reduce that number?”
Eyebrows raised when Smith said analysis was conducted again “after some preliminary discussions with senior leadership of the police department.”
In that reanalysis, pointing a weapon at a person was reclassified from use-of-force level three (on a scale of 1-4) to a use-of-force level one, the same level as soft-hand control.
“What’s important to understand is that the disparity in force versus African Americans in particular is largely located in the pointing of a weapon at someone,” said Smith. The new “softer” analysis largely obscured the disparities.
“The firearms our officers carry are loaded, yes? We’re basically talking about pointing a loaded firearm at somebody,” said Alcorn. “Soft-hand control does not involve the potential of deadly force. I frankly would discount the analysis of putting that in L-1 [the least severe use of force category],” he said.
Herrity, on the other hand, said he’s been on ride-alongs with narcotics units where pointing a weapon “changes the equation quickly.”
“They use the pointing of weapons to actually deescalate a situation.” said Herrity, the Board’s lone Republican.
Braddock Supervisor James Walkinshaw countered: “I don’t think the Police Executive Research Forum would view pointing a firearm as a deescalation technique. Necessary, effective maybe in some instances, but not deescalation,” he said.
“I do have a frustration with that slide in that it’s not reflected in the report. I searched for reestimation and you kind of didn’t show your work on that slide,” he said. “I think the public would benefit more from hearing how you came to the conclusions that were on that slide.”
THE PUBLIC will have that opportunity, said Lusk.
“We will hold a public input meeting which will include the researchers … as well as others in the community which includes advocates to have the same opportunity that we’ve had here today,” said Lusk.
In addition, Lusk said that he, along with Chairman Jeff McKay and Davis, would form a community group made up of advocates, community members, police staff and others who will review the study in detail and report back to the public safety committee with feedback on findings and recommendations, including a timeline for implementation.
All of the recommendations made by this study will be added to the Public Safety Committee’s Community Input Matrix.
This extensive list of police reform ideas and suggestions was compiled from input from public safety professionals, community members and advocacy organizations.
See the presentation deck:
See the full study: