‘What you don’t know can’t hurt me’ again wins out over transparency in Fairfax County
Aug 11, 2015
Dave Statter, Statter 911
What is it about transparency Fairfax County (VA) doesn’t understand? Less than two weeks after Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova and the leadership of the Fairfax County Police Department admitted that the image of the department was greatly impacted by the withholding of information in the John Geer case, the County hides even more information.
Instead of simply telling us the officer who shot and killed Geer, Adam Torres, was recently (we think) fired, County officials waited, once again, until Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman asked about it first. Even after acknowledging Torres is gone, the department still refuses to tell anyone when his termination occurred.
Wake up Fairfax County! A County employee’s hiring and departure date is not a state secret. It impacts nothing. Hiding behind “it’s a personnel matter” borders on the comical and further undermines your credibility. (Learn more sbout the lack of transparency in the firing of Officer Adam Torres in a report yesterday by WUSA9.com’s Peggy Fox.)
The report of the Communications Committee (read report here) of the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, was embraced by Ms. Bulova and FCPD Deputy Chief Tom Ryan at the July 27 Commission hearing. The report highlights the concept of adopting “a predisposition to disclose” information (read Jackman article about the report here). Why can’t anyone making these decisions see that failing to provide the termination date for Torres is just more of the decades old “predisposition towithhold” information policy long favored by Fairfax County?
(Note: You can watch the July 27 hearing here. Deputy Chief Ryan’s comments are at 2:15:27 and Sharon Bulova’s remarks are at 2:24:08.)
After all of the self-inflicted wounds over the last two-years, it’s telling that it didn’t dawn on anyone in charge that the Fairfax County Police Department should have released, as soon as it occurred, the news that the employment of the man at the center of this controversy was terminated. This was an opportunity to show it’s really a new day at FCPD instead of the leadership digging a deeper hole for themselves and the department.
Before I was appointed to this Commission, I was very vocal about my dissatisfaction with the top officials who allowed a cover-up to occur in the Geer case. In case this story is new to you, it became extremely obvious in January of this year that those in charge withheld key information from the public that was provided very early on by the officers who witnessed the shooting and those assigned to investigate John Geer’s August 29, 2013 death. I remain extremely proud that those officers and detectives did their jobs so honorably. They made clear from the start that this was a bad shooting by one of their fellow officers. At the same time, I’m ashamed by what occurred at the top levels of the government where I live .
Despite my own doubts, I thought it important to have an open mind as I worked on the Commission alongside some of these same leaders. The goal has been to change backwards policies and adopt a culture of transparency that a growing number in law enforcement believe is key to 21st Century policing.
Over the last few weeks, it has been extremely disappointing to witness this same leadership making a number of decisions that seem to show it’s business as usual in Fairfax County. In addition to the mishandling of the Torres firing, these include:Failing to openly address the Alex Horton complaint until after his opinion piece appeared in The Washington Post (more here); Denying a request by one of the Commission’s committees to see files on long-closed police involved shooting cases; Denying a FOIA request by the father of David Masters to see the investigative file on that long-closed case.
What all of this tells me is the culture change needed to restore trust in FCPD is not a priority for those in charge. Instead, it sounds a lot like a reaffirmation of the “what you don’t know can’t hurt me” culture that has been a guiding principle in Fairfax County for way too long.
These words are in the Communications Committee report (full disclosure – I helped write this as a member of the committee):
No longer can they (Fairfax County and the Fairfax County Police Department) just pay lip service to the idea of transparency. Real change is needed – now.
The evidence, so far, indicates the status quo is just fine and that there’s a lack of understanding on the part of Fairfax County leaders about what “real change” means. The citizens of Fairfax County and the men and women who protect us deserve better.