John Geer shooting
Fairfax prosecutor resumes probe in police killing of John Geer in 2013
By Tom Jackman
The Fairfax County prosecutor is resuming his investigation into the Fairfax police department’s shooting of John Geer in 2013, obtaining the documents that police refused to give him 15 months ago and preparing to make a decision on whether to charge the officer involved, the prosecutor said Saturday.
In his first public comments on the case since transferring it to federal prosecutors in January 2014, Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh strongly criticized Fairfax County attorneys for what he characterized as obstructing the investigation into the Geer shooting.
“Protecting the county coffers” in anticipation of a civil lawsuit, Morrogh said, “can’t be a factor in a criminal investigation.”
County officials said Saturday that they did not have a protocol in place for handling requests from the prosecutor’s office for internal affairs files at the time Morrogh requested the documents and that a protocol has since been developed.
Morrogh also provided his first detailed explanation of why he sought the internal affairs files of Officer Adam D. Torres, who fatally shot Geer — who was unarmed — while the man stood in the doorway of his Springfield home on Aug. 29, 2013. Morrogh also discussed why he then transferred the case to federal prosecutors when Fairfax police refused to cooperate.
Letters released Friday night by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) showed that the Fairfax police provided Torres’s internal affairs files earlier Friday and that Morrogh had hired an outside prosecutor to screen the files to ensure that he did not receive any protected material. Morrogh said Saturday that he enlisted Fauquier County Commonwealth’s Attorney James P. Fisher, who obtained a murder indictment against a Culpeper County police officer in 2012, to review the files.
The Justice Department, which is considering whether to file civil rights charges against Torres, said in a letter Friday that it did not object to Morrogh “conducting a concurrent investigation.” The letter from Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik did not indicate when Justice might rule on Torres’s case, and Morrogh said he also did not know what the department’s timeline might be.
Morrogh said he planned to wait to see if federal prosecutors decide to charge Torres before acting. But “in the event they don’t charge him, I’m going to have to do something,” Morrogh said. “I’m going to have to be ready.”
Also Friday, Fairfax police turned over the Torres internal affairs files to the attorneys for Geer’s family, as ordered by a Fairfax judge in the family’s civil suit against Fairfax chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows required police to provide the internal files of both their ongoing Geer investigation and of a 2013 incident in which Torres had an angry exchange with a Fairfax prosecutor outside traffic court.
The Geer family’s attorneys declined to comment Saturday.
Bellows’s order opened the door for Morrogh to request the same files, information he had originally sought in November 2013 while trying to decide whether to charge Torres with a crime. Torres told investigators in September 2013 that he fired one shot into Geer’s chest after a 42-minute standoff because Geer quickly jerked his hands from above his head to his waist, police documents released last month show. Four other officers, plus Geer’s father and best friend, all said Geer’s hands were near his head when Torres suddenly fired, their statements show.
Presented with this information by Fairfax homicide detectives, Morrogh turned to the police internal affairs bureau for background on Torres.
“I wanted to know the history of this guy, with respect to what kind of evidence is out there,” Morrogh said. “We’ve been investigating police shootings the same way all the time. In so many, it’s necessary to know the background [of the officer], and they’ve given it to me. In this case, they did not.”
Morrogh said he met with Roessler and an internal affairs captain in November 2013 and was surprised to see three Fairfax County attorneys enter the meeting.
He said the county attorneys told him they would not provide Torres’s internal affairs files in any of his cases, in part because of the “Garrity” ruling that compelled statements given by officers cannot be used against them in criminal cases. Morrogh said he would take steps to ensure that didn’t happen, but he said the attorneys told him to subpoena the files.
Morrogh said he knew, though, that Virginia Supreme Court rules, attorney general opinions and case law all state that a grand jury may only subpoena documents from a person or agency who is “not a party to the action,” thereby excluding specific defendants or their government agency.
The prosecutor said the county attorneys told him if he subpoenaed Torres’s records, they would fight the subpoena, and Morrogh knew they likely would win. Morrogh said Roessler deferred to the county attorneys’ advice on the matter.
“It was unprecedented when this occurred and put a lot of obstruction in this investigation,” Morrogh said. “You’ve got a police department that’s investigating itself, and they’re fighting the prosecutor? How’s that going to look to the public?” He said he, and the police, were tasked with seeking justice in the case and that concern about a possible lawsuit “should be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind in a criminal investigation.”
Morrogh then found that federal subpoena rules were different, asked the U.S. attorney in Alexandria if he would take on the case, and in January 2014 shifted the case there.
Fairfax County Attorney David Bobzien said Saturday that in 2013, “the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office and the Police Department did not have a protocol in place for handling requests by the Commonwealth’s Attorney for an officer’s [internal affairs] files.” He said both sides recognized that internal affairs investigations “are legally protected,” that a police officer’s internal affairs statements cannot be used against him in a criminal case and that a protocol for prosecution requests has now been developed. But Morrogh said the police had previously provided such files without incident.
In Roessler’s letter to Grassley, the chief stated that he “had a general awareness soon after the Geer incident that Officers Torres and [Rodney] Barnes had different accounts of Mr. Geer’s actions.” But Roessler said that because he must rule on any internal discipline for Torres, he has not read the officers’ statements or other investigative materials, though the county has posted them on the Internet.
Grassley also asked Roessler how often he briefed the Board of Supervisors and what he told them. Roessler responded only that he first met with the board in September 2013, and again “in other sessions” in 2013 and 2014, but he declined to specify what information he provided them.
Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
Fairfax County Creates Panel to Review Police Procedures
FAIRFAX, Va. — Fairfax County officials are creating a commission to review police department policies after an officer shot an unarmed man and investigative documents were kept secret for 17 months.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova announced the creation of the new commission Friday. The panel will include law enforcement personnel, citizens and scholars.
Bulova says the commission’s review is part of an effort by county supervisors to take a “hard look” at how police inform the public about major incidents. The commission will recommend changes to Fairfax policies to improve transparency around police-involved incidents.
The proposal for a commission comes after criticism of the slow pace of an investigation into the 2013 shooting of an unarmed man, John Greer, by an officer. Federal authorities are now handling that case.
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In Fairfax, Va., a different, no-less-scary police shooting
18 months ago John Geer was shot by police while standing at his front door with his hands raised
By Neil Macdonald, CBC News
Senior Washington Correspondent
Neil Macdonald is the senior Washington correspondent for CBC News, which he joined in 1988 following 12 years in newspapers. Before taking up this post in 2003, Macdonald reported from the Middle East for five years. He speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.
White privilege didn't protect John Geer.
That's not to say he didn't have it. As a middle-class kitchen designer living in the pleasant Washington suburb of Fairfax, Va., he had nothing whatsoever in common with the impoverished black men killed by police in Missouri and Brooklyn last year.
Those deaths triggered riots, marches and demonstrations across America, and interventions by the White House.
But Geer, pierced 18 months ago by a police bullet as he stood inside the screen door of his own home, his hands raised, begging not to be shot, simply disappeared into the emotional mixing bowl of American news and political priorities.
That should not have happened. The killing of John Geer is probably the clearest and most compelling example of what amounts to police impunity in recent American history.
He committed no crime the day he was killed. Even the officer who shot him acknowledges that. There was no struggle. The details are not murky.
But because no one was marching in the streets on behalf of John Geer, because he was absent from national headlines, the system was able to make his outrageous death go away by the simple expedient of doing nothing and refusing to discuss it.
Here are the facts:
In August 2013, Geer's common law wife, who was breaking up with him and moving out, called police to report he was angrily throwing her possessions onto his front lawn.
Asked whether Geer had weapons, the woman answered yes, but they were legally owned and secured. No, he hadn't been drinking.
John Geer, 46, was fatally shot by police in August 2013 in an unusual confrontation for which no charges have been laid. His family has launched a suit for wrongful death. (Jeff Stewart / Washington Post)
Two squad cars — four officers — initially responded. Geer, on seeing them, retreated into his home, refusing to answer questions.
A few minutes later, Officer Rodney Barnes, a trained police negotiator, arrived, and as the four other policemen stood close behind him with weapons drawn, he began trying to coax John Geer out onto the porch.
Barnes would later recall that Geer was polite, but reluctant to leave his home, saying repeatedly he was frightened of being killed.
He said "I don't want anybody to get hurt," the negotiator told investigators a few months later. "I don't want to get shot."
'I know I can get shot'
Barnes asked Geer if he owned a pistol. Geer said yes, and fetched it. He held it up, holstered, for Barnes to see and set it aside, raising his hands again. He offered to let Barnes come into the house and retrieve the weapon.
He asked for permission to scratch his nose, Barnes said, and did it slowly, then raised his hands again. He asked to reach into his pocket for his phone; Barnes asked him not to, and he obeyed.
"He said 'I know if I reach down or drop my hands I can get shot," Barnes told detectives later. "I said, hey, nobody's going to shoot you…"
But Geer pointed to one nearby officer in particular: Adam Torres, who kept raising his Sig Sauer pistol from the "ready" position (pointed at Geer's legs) to aim at Geer's chest.
Please ask him not to point his gun at me, Geer begged Barnes. Geer even offered to come out and be handcuffed voluntarily if Torres and the other patrolmen would agree to move "way back."
Then he asked to scratch his nose again. Barnes consented. And Torres fired.
Geer, grabbing his wound, screamed in pain and stepped back, slamming his door.
"And I'm like, who the fuck shot?" Barnes told detectives later. "I kinda got a little pissed."
Torres acknowledged it had been him, and began muttering how he was sorry, and that his wrist was hurting. Then, unbidden, he told Barnes how he'd had a fight over the phone with his wife just before arriving on the scene.
Everyone else is wrong
Asked by Barnes why he'd fired, Torres said Geer had dropped his hands to his waist suddenly, that he appeared to be going for a weapon.
"I said I didn't see that," said Barnes later. "You know, and I never took my eye off him (Geer)."
In this cellphone video, Fairfax County police stand outside John Geer's home after he had been shot by an officer and fell back into the house. The officer at left is said to be Rodney Barnes, the main negotiator. By the time police tactical forces arrived to enter the home, Geer had bled to death. (CBS)
The other three officers who'd been present told investigators the same thing. So did two civilian witnesses.
But prosecutors and police commanders and county officials buried the case.
Fairfax County's top prosecutor declared a conflict of interest and referred the shooting to federal authorities.
The police department stonewalled reporters.
Federal investigators did investigate, and have reported to the U.S. attorney in Virginia, who has done nothing.
And all this was done under a cloak of secrecy, until, earlier this month, a judge finally ordered disclosure of nearly 11,000 documents, containing interviews with nearly everyone involved.
Torres, it turns out, stuck to his story that the other four officers were wrong.
Does he regret having shot Geer? "I don't feel sorry for shooting the guy at all."
Why did he tell Barnes immediately afterward he was sorry? He was concerned about having upset Barnes by shooting, he said.
Why did he talk about his wrist hurting? He doesn't remember. Why did he immediately say he'd just had a fight with his wife? "I don't know why."
Under the radar
The judge's disclosure order has created a bizarre situation: Nearly all the available evidence, including audio of the witness statements, is now available on the Fairfax County website.
According to those official documents, the shooter — a cop with significant anger issues (he once screamed and cursed at prosecutors in open court) — is contradicted by four fellow officers and two civilian witnesses. That sort of rank-breaking is practically unheard of.
And yet there has been no judicial action, and almost no public uproar. Most politicians have remained silent. Those who have marched against police shootings in the past have been largely uninterested.
A protest at Fairfax police headquarters drew a couple of dozen people. Only the Washington Post has taken a serious interest in the case.
But the killing of John Geer should frighten everyone. It is the best example yet that while police often target minorities disproportionately, their basic and overriding demand is total and unquestioning submission to their authority.
Resist, however peacefully and even in your own home, and heaven help you, no matter what your skin colour.