Fairfax County Supervisors Seek Outside Help with Transparency

Fairfax County Supervisors Seek Outside Help with Transparency

“Independent expertise” to advise on information disclosure policies.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Sharon Bulova (center) reads her statement calling for outside input on improving information disclosure policies.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Sharon Bulova (center) reads her statement calling for outside input on improving information disclosure policies. Photo by Tim Peterson.

Eight days after offering the public the first of any kind of official explanation for officer-involved shooting of Springfield resident John Geer, the Board of Supervisors took another step.

Though they didn’t share any further information on the case, chairman Sharon Bulova and the panel returned from an extended closed session on Jan. 13 with a motion with the potential to affect government transparency.

“Until John Geer was shot on August 2[9], 2013,” Bulova’s motion statement reads, “the procedures adopted by the Police Chief for public disclosure regarding officer involved shootings seemed to establish a reasonable balance between the county’s duty to make timely disclosure and the concerns the police chief has expressed about conducting a professional investigation and the safety of officers involved in a shooting incident.”

The statement goes on to explain that the police policies don’t account for the way this particular case has been passed from the Fairfax County Police Department to the Commonwealth Attorney to the Department of Justice, all over the course of the past 16 months and change.

THOSE 16 MONTHS included a $12 million civil case filed against the county. As part of that case, a Fairfax Circuit Court judge has ordered more documents and records of the police action the day of the shooting be produced within the month.

“The board is also aware of concerns expressed by some members of the public to the effect that the police chief should not be responsible for both establishing and implementing the policies for disclosures relating to police-involved shootings,” Bulova’s statement reads.

There are no more admissions or revelations on the Geer case itself. Instead, Bulova claims to have “reached out to Attorney General Mark Herring for his suggestions for a process for us to identify professional organizations and/or resources that can work with us to review our policies and recommend appropriate changes.”

The idea would be to prevent such a delay from happening again, given a case with similar circumstances.

In addition to her attempt to connect with Herring, Bulova moved to direct the County Executive to locate “independent expertise in the field of Police Department operations and, specifically, in the area of policies and procedures with respect to information disclosures in the case of police involved shootings.”

The County Executive would also be charged with figuring out funding source and procedure for the board to retain such a resource.

Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) was the first of all the supervisors to weigh in on the motion.

“I reluctantly support the motion,” he said. “I think it’s too little too late. The actual motion gives no policy direction on transparency, though I believe that’s the intent.

“There’s no provision to engage our citizens in the process,” he continued. “This to me smells of outsourcing policy-making. I hope that’s not the intent. I believe we need to engage our citizens, engage our staff and have a transparency conversation on this topic.”

Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) didn’t read the motion as an attempt to exclude the public, nor as too little too late. But, he conceded, “there is a perception in the public that police should not be advising us on police disclosure procedures. I think that’s legitimate.”

Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully) voiced his lack of support for the motion, saying: “Our role in the investigation was completed promptly. “It’s not any of our actions, or a result of anything we did that the U.S. Department of Justice has not completed their investigation over the course of a year. That’s not anything we did, there’s no lack of transparency on our part or any fault of our process.”

SUPERVISORS Cook (R-Braddock), Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), McKay (D-Lee) and Smyth (D-Providence) signed on with the motion, acknowledging the benefit of looking at policy changes to speed up the information disclosure process.

“The community needs to know where does the buck stop?” said Hudgins. “It actually does stop with us. This gives us more than the opportunity to maintain the due diligence to the case that it needs. It gives us also an opportunity to work with the community, I hope.”

Bulova’s motion calls for contracting with whatever organization the County Executive, in consultation with the Attorney General’s office, comes up with by February or March.

The motion passed, with only supervisors Frey and Hyland dissenting.