By Tim Peterson
It’s been more than 16 months since John Geer of Springfield was shot and killed by a Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) officer. And since the Aug. 29, 2013 shooting, scant information on the incident has been provided by the FCPD or the county Board of Supervisors, such as an explanation of what transpired up to and following the shooting, and the identities of the officers involved. They’ve kept this information from the media, the public and the Geer family, citing an ongoing federal investigation into the death.
That was until Jan 5, when Fairfax County released a 304-word statement regarding the events surrounding Geer’s death. For the first time, the officer who shot Geer was named: PFC Adam Torres, who the statement said, “fired a single shot that struck Geer.”
#“We’ve had policies in place regarding when a police officer’s name and information is released,” Board of Supervisors chairman Sharon Bulova said Monday night. “Usually it’s a matter of weeks. In this particular case it turned out to be an unusual situation that took longer.”
#Police had been called to Geer’s house by his partner and mother of his two daughters Maura Harrington, over a domestic dispute. The statement says officers, “including a trained negotiator,” talked with Geer for over half an hour while he stood in the doorway of his house, arms raised above his head and resting on the doorframe.
#“Geer was reported as having multiple firearms inside the home,” the statement says, “displaying a firearm that he threatened to use against the police, and refused the officers’ requests that he remain outside and speak to them.”
#Torres then shot Geer in the chest when he began lowering his hands.
ACCORDING TO THE STATEMENT a SWAT team entered Geer’s house, after Geer died, and found a loaded, holstered handgun on the stairs by where he had been standing.
“A large amount of citizens have guns in their home. Does that give them the right to come and shoot you?” said Jeff Stewart of Chantilly, a friend of Geer’s for over 25 years who witnessed the shooting.
“At the time he was shot he wasn’t bearing any arms. He owned them. Why is it relevant to the release? Does a loaded gun show intent? The burden fell on the police to defuse the situation, let the guy go inside, chill out.”
Geer’s father Don didn’t hear about the county’s release until someone called to say it was happening on television.
“The press release I felt was very tainted towards the police department,” he said. “It depicted John as being a terrorist or something, had all these guns in the house. He was a hunter. It didn’t sound like that.”
THOUGH THE COUNTY’S STATEMENT refers to a Circuit Court ruling that they “may release some information pertaining to the Aug. 29, 2013, officer-involved shooting of John Geer,” the Dec. 22 opinion from judge Randy Bellows was a court order.
After a Dec. 19 hearing in Fairfax, Bellows quickly turned around a response forcing the county to produce more than 100 documents being sought by lawyer Michael Lieberman in a $12 million civil suit over Geer’s death. According to Lieberman, the county had previously objected to all but six of 127 requests for documents.
“That’s pretty amazing to have a judge turn around and give you a 12-page opinion over a weekend,” said Lieberman. “He obviously worked on it all weekend, he listened carefully.”
The documents include everything from 911 calls and witness statements to the medical treatment of Geer and blood pattern examination. Bellows is holding off granting or denying production of several documents as they relate to the county’s internal investigation or the federal investigation. He gave the county 30 days to produce all the others.
The FCPD has defended their silence so far through the criminal investigative privilege afforded by the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The department declined to comment for this story and the Fairfax County Attorney’s office didn’t respond to an interview request.
In his opinion piece, Bellows wrote: “The entity seeking to assert the criminal investigative file privilege is no longer responsible for any aspect of the criminal investigation and the entity that is now solely responsible for the criminal investigation has made it clear that it has taken no step to discourage the custodian of the criminal investigative files from disclosure of most of the files at issue.”
Bellows referred to correspondence between U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik, acknowledging that the case currently sits with the U.S. Department of Justice, not the state’s attorney or the FCPD. Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent formal inquiries to FCPD Chief Edwin Roessler and U.S. Attorney Dana Boente about the case in November 2014. He sent another letter to Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh in December.
Kadzik answered Grassley that the FCPD wasn’t instructed to withhold information about the shooting, only the federal investigation.
Lieberman has continued to criticize the Board of Supervisors, who have authority over the FCPD and allowed the silence from that department to continue.
For Stewart and the Geer family, the continued silence, even with this recent disclosure, has been frustrating and painful.
“It’s surreal enough to watch your friend get shot,” said Stewart. “It goes to a whole different level when no one’s held accountable.”
“I can’t figure out why I’ve had to go through this miserable 16 months in order to hear anything being done at all,” said Don Geer. “Closure would be why someone pulled the trigger and killed my son, that’s as much as I can expect at this point in time. A better idea of why did it happen.”
“We need to be transparent and we haven’t been,” he said in a recent interview. “The county attorney is supposed to provide advice, we make decisions. I think we’ve been following overly protective legal advice instead of making the right decision in this case, is really what it boils down to.”
Lieberman said he sees this action by the county as “preemptive damage control.” He continued, “The only positive thing I take out of it is some claim they’re finally going to change the policies.”
Bulova admitted the Board of Supervisors, FCPD and County Attorney’s policies on information sharing all need to be examined. "In retrospect,” she said, “our policies need to be changed to provide information sooner if there is a delay like this.”
She also addressed the possibility of revisiting creating a citizen’s police advisory council.
“At least it’s getting their attention,” Geer said. “The idea of the police investigating the police just doesn’t work. That’s all there is to it.”
Lieberman is optimistic that future hearings will help produce more documents, and for now at least some answers to 16-month-old questions are coming forward.
“The nightmare of John’s shooting isn’t ever going to end,” he said, “but the nightmare of what the county’s done, at least we can see the light at the end of the tunnel for getting over that part.”
By John Lovaas/Reston Impact Producer/Host
#Finally some of the smoke is clearing. Sixteen months after unarmed John Geer was killed standing in his doorway by an unidentified Fairfax County Police officer we are getting an explanation of the wall of silence surrounding his death. In response to an inquiry by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney (prosecutor) Raymond Morrogh revealed why he failed to complete his investigation into Mr. Geer’s killing and took the unusual step of passing the case to the U.S. Attorney (U.S. Justice Dept.) a year ago. The Fairfax prosecutor typically works closely with police investigators looking into possible abuse or criminal acts by police officers. He depends on their detective work in deciding whether to recommend charges or empanel a grand jury (as in Ferguson, Mo. or New York City) to seek indictment. In the case of John Geer’s death, Mr. Morrogh told Senator Grassley that “the decision by the Chief of Police…to withhold requested materials effectively prevented me from completing the investigation and rendering a decision.” Morrogh said that Chief Roessler, who is appointed by and in theory accountable to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, was supported by County Attorney David Bobzien, also a subordinate of the Chairman and Board of Supervisors in refusing to hand over evidence. Furthermore, Roessler also refused to cooperate in providing evidence requested by the Justice Department. Finally, the Justice Department took the County and Police to court, and a judge ordered Fairfax County Police to provide the evidence sought. Only now, under court order, have the cops agreed to cooperate to some extent with the U.S. Attorney’s investigation. We shall see.
#What on earth is going on here? Why have we heard nothing from the people who the Police Chief works for—Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova and the nine silent District Supervisors? On Fairfax County’s organization chart, it is clear that the Police Department--just like the Departments of Community Services, Planning and Zoning, and Information Technology, for example—reports to, takes direction from and has its policies set by the Chairman and Board of Supervisors. Department chiefs can also be removed by the Board.
#Why have Bulova and the Board not directed FCPD to drop the shroud of secrecy so inappropriate in an open society, and to cooperate fully with the Commonwealth Attorney and Justice Department? Indeed, who is in charge?
#Perhaps Chairman Bulova and the Supes have not noticed the growing agitation here and around the USA about the lack of accountability of police forces often resembling military units. In view of the Geer killing and several others here under questionable circumstances—including Dr. Salvatore Culosi, Randal Leroy Collins, David Masters, Hailu Brooks—and FCPD’s 72-year history of no officer ever being charged, Fairfax County may be the impunity capitol of the country. Other jurisdictions the size of Fairfax County have created independent citizen oversight panels to assure transparency and open communication on matters of police abuse and use of lethal force. It is time this County did so as well. Tragically, Fairfax County’s lack of accountability encourages a small number of trigger-happy bad actors within the force to abuse their power, and lose for all the confidence of those they are supposed to protect.
By Tom Jackman
The Washington Post
After Fairfax County on Monday decided to release the name of the officer involved in the fatal shooting of John Geer in 2013, and make the new allegation that Geer had threatened police with a gun, there remain a number of crucial unanswered questions in the case. Here are our top seven. You can add yours in the comments:
1) Why did Officer Adam Torres fire one shot at close range and kill John Geer?
After 16 months of silence, the Fairfax police identified a 31-year-old eight-year veteran from the West Springfield patrol station as the shooter, but would not say why he fired. Did Torres think that Geer, after between 30 and 50 minutes of discussion, was reaching for a gun when he began to lower his hands from the top of the storm door? Witnesses say Geer’s hands had only reached eye level when Torres fired. When officers feel threatened, they are trained to fire more than one time. Other officers were also on scene, with weapons aimed at Geer, but they did not fire. Was the shot intentional, or an accident? Did Geer say something that caused Torres to feel threatened?
2) When will a decision be made about whether to charge Torres with a crime?
The case is now in the hands of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which is not known for prompt decisions (see the Oscar Grant case in Oakland from 2009, or the Trayvon Martin case from 2012). The investigation, initially conducted by the Fairfax police homicide section and reviewed by Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, was shifted to the U.S. attorney in Alexandria in January 2014 after Morrogh ran into roadblocks obtaining internal affairs information from the Fairfax police, Morrogh has said. The FBI and Justice Department lawyers then investigated, subpoenaed the same internal affairs information Morrogh sought, then passed the case to Main Justice in November for a ruling.
The difference between the Geer case and Grant, Martin, Michael Brown and others is that local prosecutors and juries made decisions on those cases before the feds got involved. This time, the feds are the first ones to make a call. And if they decide there was no civil rights violation — defined as a government entity willfully denying a citizen their rights — does the case then return to Fairfax prosecutor Morrogh for a decision on whether state law was violated? How long would all this take?
3) What internal affairs files were the Fairfax and federal prosecutors seeking in this case?
This has apparently been a major sticking point for investigators, and several officials familiar with the case said that both Morrogh and the federal prosecutors were seeking information not on the shooter, Torres, but on one of the police witnesses. The issue reportedly is whether the witness has had prior problems with truthfulness. Fairfax prosecutors are careful not to use witnesses whose truthfulness has been challenged in court, because it allows defense attorneys to attack their testimony. Did a police witness in the Geer case offer corroborating testimony for Torres, or conflicting? This is also complicated by the legal precedent that statements given by officers in internal investigations, mandatorily, cannot be used against them in criminal cases, where they are not required to testify. Morrogh reportedly was not seeking to prosecute anyone based on the prior cases, but Fairfax County attorneys still resisted.
4) How will Fairfax County proceed in the civil lawsuit filed by Geer’s family?
Frustrated after a year of silence, Geer’s family sued Fairfax police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. and the county in September, seeking answers. Fairfax resisted providing any pre-trial discovery, saying the case was still under federal investigation. Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows last month ordered Fairfax to turn over everything that was obtained before the case went to the feds in January 2014 and gave them 30 days to do so. After two weeks, Fairfax has not yet done so. In the last police shooting to go to civil court, the 2006 killing of unarmed optometrist Salvatore Culosi, Fairfax County fought Culosi’s lawyers for four years in federal court before finally agreeing to pay a $2 million settlement on the eve of trial. Will Fairfax again take a hardball approach to the family of a man shot dead by one of their officers?
5) When will Fairfax County provide a detailed timeline of what happened that day?
After 16 months, the Fairfax police for the first time revealed not only Torres’s name, but a new claim that Geer was “displaying a firearm that he threatened to use against the police.” The police also stated that “a trained negotiator” was involved and tried to get Geer to emerge from his townhouse, though Geer was not holding any hostages and was not known to be suspected of any crimes. Geer’s father said he was told by police that Geer was unarmed, and he does not appear armed in a photo taken shortly before the shooting, though a holstered, loaded handgun was found a few feet from the doorway. The Geer family’s lawyer, Michael Lieberman, said he had never heard any report about Geer displaying a gun or that a negotiator was involved. What other details do Fairfax authorities have about the case, including their decision to wait an hour before rendering aid to the mortally wounded Geer?
6) If the case languishes at the federal level, will Sen. Charles Grassley get involved again?
Grassley (R-Iowa) is now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As the case sat quietly within the Justice Department, he fired off letters to the Fairfax police chief, the U.S. attorney and the Fairfax prosecutor, asking what was causing the delay. The responses to his questions made it clear that no one was silencing the Fairfax police, clearing the way for Judge Bellows to order them to release information to the family in the civil case. Will he seek more information if the case goes quiet again?
7) Why have Fairfax police not previously stated that Geer was “displaying a firearm that he threatened to use against the police”?
When Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson’s full explanation of why he shot Michael Brown was made publicly available, it provided a previously missing component to the discussion of why Brown was killed. Wilson’s version of events came less than four months after the shooting, but well after the civil unrest it caused. In Fairfax, there has been no civil unrest, and, until Monday, very little information.