Letter: Stop the Stonewalling

Letter: Stop the Stonewalling

To the Editor:

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors must do their own job. They continue to look elsewhere for answers to the lack of leadership instead of within themselves. The long tenure and lack of political competition for these board seats is a major contributor to the passive approach to the lack of police accountability taken by the board. 2015 is an election year for the Board of Supervisors. All 10 board seats, including the chairman’s, are up for election or re-election. The citizens of Fairfax County must make the right choices come the election.

Four conditions contributed to this stonewalling that, without changes in policy and procedures, the stonewalling will merely continue when the next unarmed police shooting occurs and the board will wring its hands and continue to avoid accountability and responsibility for a lack of leadership. What is the saying? We have met the enemy and it is us! I recommend the following steps be taken:

  • Establish a Citizen Police Oversight Board. Chairman Sharon Bulova means well, but continues to say they are using their auditor to investigate police complaints. No oversight board is needed and she refers to rubber stamp district citizen boards handpicked to support the police with no agenda or authority to investigate citizen complaints. This is sad. Clearly the police chiefs (one retired but reemployed as a deputy county executive for public safety; the other hand picked by the reemployed former police chief) run the show with little or no accountability to the board. There are 150 Citizen Police Oversight Boards operating in the U.S. If one form of these were operating in Fairfax County today it could have resulted in recommendations for a grand jury to investigate the Geer case, or pursue another option to speed up the process and do it in the open. The oversight board would be a useful political and substantive vehicle to avoid stonewalling and move forward the case of John Geer and others that never were resolved to the satisfaction of the victim’s families and friends who were killed by police. Is Fairfax County so elite that it can’t stoop to operate in the sunshine and, when necessary, seek the counsel and debate the merits of a citizen police oversight board? If you ask other city and other county governments and police departments that have citizen advisory panels you will readily see that they can be helpful and lead to strong police-community relationships. Right now in Fairfax County the police are viewed by many in a negative light. Rogue cops, cowboys, arrogant, unapproachable and ultimately scary. That is very unfortunate and unnecessary. The last time I looked, as a retired homicide detective, our country is still a democracy and not a banana republic dictatorship. An oversight board with adequate authority to look into complaints can be a valuable tool for the police and the board. The board should at least try it; limit its life to two years and do a public review to determine if it should be retained or abolished.

  • Revise the Virginia Freedom of Information Act regulations to allow for a judicial appeal when a FOIA request is denied and there is little or no justification for the denial, or the release of information, such as classically in the John Geer court order. Without the intervention of an outside authority figure we would still be watching the police and county stonewalling. In the absence of a change in the Virginia FOIA law that now grants police a blanket exemption for an unlimited time period the police in Fairfax County and elsewhere in the Commonwealth will continue to operate as secret police with no incentive to release police incident reports or internal investigation reports in order to inform the public about the truth of what happened in a particular police action.

  • Hire a new police chief and deputy county executive for public safety from outside the county government. Start with a new team with no baggage. No police chief has ever been selected from outside of the Fairfax County Police Department in modern times. This is a breeding ground for stonewalling. A secret fraternity that even the board, who is supposed to oversee them, can’t crack the vice lock they have on information. The board, in desperation, is hiring outside attorneys, information management consultants and advice from the state attorney general. What are they thinking? The last time I looked, the police were supposed to be working for the board; they have a stable of attorneys; and their budget is approximately a billion dollars; half goes to the School Board but the other half goes to probably a bloated bureaucracy that has long ago circled the wagons for the police department which from an outsider’s point of view in watching the lack of leadership on the Geer case reports to no one and is neither responsive nor accountable to no one.

  • Reduce the presence of Fairfax County SWAT teams. Responding to calls on domestic disputes, delivering warrants for petty crimes, is not something new and perhaps the Obama administration will tackle this issue in their policing task force. Examples of “overkill” abound; the latest example is the ramming of the hapless John Geer’s townhome. Lacking police incident reports to verify the authenticity of circumstances that justified the police shootings, one can’t validate the use of lethal force or justify SWAT team involvement in the shooting of unarmed citizens. Nevertheless here is a list of eight people who were shot and killed by police since 2006:

  • 2006: Dr. Salvatore J. Culosi - Shot and killed by a SWAT team member who claimed he accidentally bumped his elbow on his vehicle door and shot Culosi in the chest. The SWAT team was delivering a warrant for Culosi’s arrest for sports gambling. Fairfax County settled out of court on a wrongful death suit.

  • 2007: Randall Leroy Collins - Shot 11 times and castrated; killed by a SWAT team. African American; no police incident report released.

  • 2008: Heilu Brook - Ethiopian; shot multiple times in the back; allegedly robbed a bank with a gun (toy gun) and fled area; killed by Fairfax County police. No police incident report released.

  • 2009: David Masters -Shot in the back while sitting in his car unarmed on a service road and surrounded by armed police. He was suspected of stealing a flower plant from a retail store. He fled in his car. Unarmed. No police incident report released. After more than a year, the shooter was identified.

  • 2010: Ian C. Smith - Known mentally ill patient shot in his own home in the basement; had a toy gun and refused to drop it. Family called mental health personnel who were not available to come to the home so the police went on the call. No police incident report released. Patient permanently incapacitated as a result of the gunshot wound.

  • 2012: Nicholas Allen Kaelber - Shot multiple times in the back and killed. Police stated he looked suspicious and when they asked him to stop, he fled and they shot him.

  • 2013: John Geer - Shot in the chest while standing in the doorway of his own home speaking to a police negotiator; no crime had been committed. Left to bleed to death. SWAT team arrived with a battering ram vehicle that caved in the front of the house. Geer found dead lying in the foyer by the door. No police incident report released until pressure from the U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley caused the Fairfax County court system to order release of documents. Internal investigation documents still not available.

  • 2013: James Bryant - Homeless shelter resident who went into a rage; unarmed. Shot and killed inside the homeless shelter. Police stated he resisted arrest and was uncontrollable. Police also said use of non lethal equipment was not successful in subduing him. African American.

SWAT team availability and need is questionable. Perhaps a regional unit that mobilizes when called upon as back up or the need for a major police presence is something that could be looked into. However, the incidences of crime committed that need military-style operations is at the least excessive and probably overkill.

Thank you for considering these thoughts as the legal process slowly continues on the John Geer case. Instead of the end, the Geer case we believe should be the beginning of a detailed investigation of the county board and police by the civil rights division of the justice Department to determine if there is a pattern and practice of the use of excessive force. One solution to reform the police department and end the excessive use of force is to appoint an outside monitor to implement recommendations to end the use of SWAT teams for minor incidents and to end the practice, in violation of their own general orders on the use of force, to shoot unarmed individuals who pose no threat of harm to the police.

Nicholas Beltrante

Executive Director

Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, Inc.