Editorial: 'Our Community Deserves Better'

Editorial: 'Our Community Deserves Better'

Strongly worded recommendations for police on transparency and public trust; FCPD has miles to go.

Outrage over the shooting death of John Geer of Springfield on Aug. 29, 2013, by a Fairfax County Police officer led the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to form of the Ad Hoc Police Practice Review Commission, which began meeting in March 2015. The Communications Subcommittee was the first to give recommendations to the full commission, and the report pulled no punches.

“Communications in recent high-profile use-of-force and critical incident cases were mishandled, inadequate and untimely, leading to loss of public trust and questions about the legitimacy of police actions. … Our community deserves better.”

“The failures in both communications and its Freedom of Information Act policies have created this crisis of confidence for FCPD. … There must be significant change coming from the leadership of the county and the Fairfax County Police Department. No longer can they just pay lip service to the idea of transparency. Real change is needed – now. ...

“It is well past time for the Fairfax County Police Department to start providing timely, honest and effective communications with everything it does. We deserve nothing less. ...

“Constant ‘happy talk’ breeds suspicion, while being direct and clear about mistakes and failures as well as accomplishments results in increased credibility.”

The Communications Committee, led by former Fairfax County Public Information Officer Merni Fitzgerald, calls for: a culture change to favor releasing as much information as possible; policy change to encourage transparency and accountability by establishing a culture of disclosure; adopting a predisposition-to-disclose, with public records presumed to be public and exemptions strictly and narrowly construed.

For example, the committee calls for: releasing the names of officers involved in any police shootings within one week; releasing video from body cameras, dashboard cameras and any other digital record of of a police-involved shooting death immediately; a continuous process of information declassification for cases that are no longer active or are closed; releasing actual police reports, with redactions where necessary, rather than creating summary documents; providing unfettered access to blotter-type information to include a list of every incident and call with the basic who/what/when/where/how information.

The full report is eight pages, well-written and well worth reading.

CHANGE IN CULTURE is not coming automatically or easily to the Fairfax County Police Department. While the FCPD has released reams of information to the commission, that has not included much requested and needed information for the commission and its subcommittees to meet established scope of work.

For example, the Use of Force Subcommittee is tasked in its scope of work to “review (not investigate) recent use of force incidents (lethal and non-lethal) involving FCPD as well as review any existing data summarizing all FCPD use of force interactions, officer involved shootings resulting in death or injury, and in-custody deaths from 2005 to 2015.”

In May, the committee asked what documents and reports would be available and when.

The following response was posted in June:

“The Chief of Police will post a synopsis and other information regarding the department’s officer involved shootings but will not be releasing any case reports, files or documents from the criminal or administrative case.”

That response does not reflect a culture of transparency.

But what’s worse is that on Aug. 10, just weeks before the subcommittee’s final recommendations are due to the full commission, the committee still has not received the synopsis promised, or even a list of officer-involved shootings resulting in death or injury, and in-custody deaths from 2005 to 2015.

FCPD Chief of Police Edwin Roessler is scheduled to present the synopses to the committee on Aug. 12. All commission and subcommittee meetings are open to the public, see http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/policecommission/

Mary Kimm, Connection editor and publisher, serves on the Ad Hoc Police Policies Review Commission. The opinions expressed here are her own, and do not speak for the commission.