Editorial: Baby Steps, Not Enough

Editorial: Baby Steps, Not Enough

Supervisors should take action, not defer to “outside expert,” on absurd and outrageous behavior of police department.

Finally, now that the Fairfax County Police Department has taken stonewalling into the arena of the absurd, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has at least said it is time for change. It is a step, but a step that continues the appearance of obfuscation if not outright obstruction.

John Geer of Springfield was shot dead inside the doorway of his own home in Springfield on Aug. 29, 2013. Following an argument with his longtime partner, police arrived at Geer’s home and spoke with him for more than half an hour while he stood in his doorway, unarmed, with his hands raised and resting on the frame. As he began to lower his hands, by all accounts still at shoulder level, he was shot in the chest and died in his house without receiving medical attention.

It took more than 16 months, a $12 million civil suit by Geer’s family and a court order to get the first tiny bit of information on the shooting, which came earlier this month. Police named the police officer who fired the shot that killed John Geer.

The short written statement by Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. included some very troubling references that appear to blame the shooting on the fact that Geer was a known gun owner. At least 35 percent of Virginia residents are gun owners; are they all more vulnerable if for some reason police are called to their homes?

Now Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova has asked 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.”

We agree with Supervisor Pat Herrity, who says: “As elected officials it is our job to make policy, not hire an ‘outside expert’ to do our job for us. ... We currently have the resources of a professional staff at our disposal.” Herrity also notes that the proposal does not contain a provision for public input, and that many county residents have researched this topic and qualify as experts.

A few minutes of research shows, for example, that the National Association of Police Chiefs, for example, has extensive documentation about best practices in a variety of police shooting incidents. (Naming the officer involved after 48 hours is among the recommendations.)

The problem goes beyond Fairfax County, and beyond police shootings.

The first paragraph of Virginia Freedom of Information Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1968, states that all public records "shall be presumed open." But the legislation includes an exemption that allows police to withhold "complaints, memoranda, correspondence, case files or reports, witness statements and evidence."

Police officials in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria have adopted what they call a "blanket" approach to using their exemption. That means they have decided to withhold any document they can without any analysis of whether they should, whether the case is open or closed, whether they are about a “police-involved shooting” or information requested by a family about a homicide victim, or even about routine police activity in a neighborhood. Not even defense attorneys or victims of crimes can gain access to actual police reports.

This is about lack of accountability and denying the public access to information that must be made public.

Leaders of police departments here are engaged in serious and significant abuse of power. It’s time for elected officials to represent the public and impose change on those who would hide behind a culture of secrecy.