Fairfax County shields cops when public complains
Beshah's 19-year-old son, Hailu Brook, was shot and killed by Fairfax police on Dec. 10, 2008, in connection with a McLean bank robbery.
According to police, a man matching the description of the bank robber fled the scene. When officers confronted Brook, he produced what appeared to be a gun. The cops fired, striking him in the upper body and killing him. Police later confirmed that Brook's gun was a toy.
"They could've apprehended him and tried him in court. They could've shot him in the arm, or the leg - not like he was a billboard," said Beshah, a former Ethiopian diplomat. "This is America -- not Africa, not Mexico."
After a nearly two-year investigation, Beshah was told that the department ruled the shooting of his son justified. His efforts to read the investigative report and watch in-car videos of that day's events were stonewalled. He was never told the officers' names, discovering them later in a local news blog story about the officers being awarded medals.
"I want to know the truth," Beshah said. "Whatever happened, my son was killed with excessive force."
But while Beshah and others like him long for a more complete picture of police actions, Fairfax officials say they are in accordance with a Virginia law that does not compel police to disclose detailed information about how it handles public complaints.
Virginia's Association of Chiefs of Police hails the law for allowing "one of the broadest exemptions for releasing information ... in all the states." Essentially, police departments have the right to release information at their discretion, on their timeline -- and Fairfax exercises that right liberally.
"Fairfax is more protective than most departments," said Edward Nuttall, general counsel for the Fairfax Coalition of Police. That secrecy is often a matter of safety for police whose jobs could make them targets, he said.
In contrast, Maryland's Montgomery County releases the names of officers involved in shootings as a matter of policy.
Frustrated with Fairfax police, Beshah joined with the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability to demand more transparency from the department. In June, after more than a year of pressure from the coalition, the Fairfax County board rejected the idea of creating civilian oversight of the department, but did order its own audit of police procedures.
The coalition has made some progress. Late last year, department policy was changed to allow -- but not require -- the release of the names of officers involved in shootings, said spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell.
"At this particular time, we're looking at each case individually," Caldwell said. "We're weighing a variety of factors to decide if information will be released."