A raft of new policies adopted June 21 by Board of Supervisors will boost the Fairfax County Police Department’s transparency with the public and ensure more thorough disclosure of facts following incidents, supervisors said.
“When it comes to community confidence, it’s critical,” Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) said of the policy overhaul. “The real power and authority of law enforcement doesn’t really come from the weapons they are provided, it comes from the confidence of the community. In our community and nationwide, the community is asking for something different, something better, something more.”
The 202 recommendations came after eight months’ work by the Ad-Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, formed last year by Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) after county police shot and killed unarmed Kingstowne resident John Geer in 2013.
The new rules show a “reverence for the sanctity of life,” Bulova said. Police derive their authority from the public and incidents where they use force “must be investigated in a fair, balanced and comprehensive manner to ensure accountability and maintain public trust and legitimacy,” she said.
The commission recommended the county establish an Office of Independent Police Auditor to review use-of-force incidents involving law-enforcement personnel and a Civilian Review Panel to oversee civilian complaints about police misconduct and abuses of authority.
Officers now will be trained to interact with distraught people showing signs of “excited delirium.”
The commission also recommended equipping officers with electronic-control weapons, e.g., tasers.
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. said the department is grappling with the estimated $1.5 million cost, but would try to train and equip all patrol officers to use the high-voltage devices. Having undercover detectives carry the devices would be impractical, he said.
The department also might be willing to begin a pilot program with body cameras worn by officers, but outfitting all officers with the devices would involve a “staggering cost,” Roessler said. In addition, the cameras still have many legal questions that must be resolved, he said.
“Body-borne cameras are more complicated than people realize,” said Bulova, noting officials still must determine who can ask for and view the footage and whether innocent bystanders could be pixelated so as not be identified.
Some supervisors pressed for action on body cameras sooner than the planned 18-month time frame, but others said the board should wait to see if the General Assembly would pass bills pertaining to such equipment.
Supervisors also approved new communication policies centered around a predisposition to disclose information.
County police will continue to withhold information from the public regarding evidence in ongoing investigations. The department may release the names, ranks, tenure and other details about officers involved in use-of-force incidents, but only after the police chief within 10 calendar days reviews whether such disclosure would jeopardize the safety of those officers and their families. Supervisors would retain authority to overrule the police chief and require disclosure of officers’ names.
Herrity, who argued for publicly identifying former county police Officer Adam Torres in the Geer shooting case, disagreed with the new policy and voted against it.
“I believe the release of an officer’s name in a criminal proceeding before the process is complete not only puts the officer, but their wife and children, unnecessarily at risk,” he said. “There are a lot of crazy people out there who will react to a [Web] post. I’m not prepared to put our officers’ families at risk for an undefined public benefit.”
While not singling out Herrity, Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee) said some board members had politicized the Geer case and said the new rules would squash inaccurate rumors.
The naming policy maintains trust with police officers, said Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason). “It will go a long way toward raising morale,” she said.
Some in the auditorium silently pressed for greater accountability. When Roessler testified, a protester seated behind him placed signs behind the chief’s head reading “Say Her Name. Justice for Natasha McKenna” and “Cops with Tasers Killed Natasha.”
The placards referred to a Fairfax County Adult Detention Center inmate who died after being tasered by a sheriff’s deputy in February 2015. Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh ruled no crime occurred.
County policy forbids the display of signs during supervisors’ meetings. Supervisors did not object to the protesters’ holding up placards, but officials controlling television coverage of the meeting switched to different camera angles when the signs appeared.
Nerves frayed when some supervisors delved into minutiae shortly before the vote. Cook, who chairs the board’s Public Safety Committee, was vexed that some supervisors declined to submit comments about the report earlier.
“This process only works if the board does its homework,” he said. “If board members haven’t read the whole thing by now, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
View the ad-hoc commission’s report www.fairfaxcounty.gov/chairman/pdf/adhoc-final-10.8.15.pdf.
Article written by Inside Nova’s Staff Writer Brian Trompeter