Fairfax County favors independent police reviews amid concern over black arrests
By Antonio Olivo and Justin Jouvenal July 19
Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday signaled support for providing more civilian scrutiny of police officers’ use of force, a day after a report revealed that African Americans in the county are disproportionately affected in such cases.
Proposals to create a civilian review panel for police abuse investigations and to hire an independent auditor in cases involving death or serious injury stem from recommendations made by a police advisory commission created in response to controversy over the 2013 fatal shooting of an unarmed white man.
However, tensions nationwide over how African Americans are treated by the police spilled into a Tuesday meeting about the proposals, on which county supervisors will probably vote in the fall.
“Black lives matter!” an activist shouted, while others held signs that referred to the report released this week that showed more than 40 percent of use-of-force cases in the county last year involved African Americans, who account for about 8 percent of Fairfax’s population of 1.1 million residents.
Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) chaired the meeting, which started with a moment of silence to honor police officers killed this month in Dallas and Baton Rouge. At one point, he threatened to have the activists kicked out.
“We won’t stand for that,” Cook told the activists.
County officials were already rattled by the controversy surrounding the death of John Geer, a Springfield man shot by a county police officer at the doorway of his home three years ago. A Fairfax County officer pleaded guilty to manslaughter in April.
The ongoing protests over police shootings around the country underscored their support for more oversight, several county officials said.
A proposal to create a civilian review panel would give that appointed body authority to refer complaints of abuse by officers to county police and to review those investigations for thoroughness. The panel could also request a follow-up investigation if the first one appeared problematic.
Meanwhile, a proposal to hire an independent auditor would allow that person to monitor police department investigations into cases that caused death or serious injury, and to report on cases where there were questions about whether police acted appropriately.
Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) said the new oversight would help assure residents that officials are serious about reviewing instances where officers use force or are accused of misconduct.
“It’s just to be sure that we have done as much as we can to be as fair as possible,” Smyth said.
Fairfax County’s police chief, Edwin C. Roessler Jr., who attended the meeting, said such external review is “greatly needed in the law enforcement profession.”
“We need to restore the confidence and public trust from our community members to be effective as a community,” he said.
Some county police officers, however, criticized the ideas.
Joseph Woloszyn, president of the Police Benevolent Association of Virginia, said the Board of Supervisors already had oversight of the department, so there was no need to add an auditor or a civilian review panel.
He questioned whether civilian review panel members would have the policing expertise to properly review complaints and whether their decisions might be subject to political pressures because they would be appointees.
“Depending on the qualifications for picking the auditor or civilian review panel, that could make policing more politicized in the county,” Woloszyn said. “Look at panels like this in Chicago, Baltimore and Atlanta. It hasn’t worked out so well.”
The ideas for increased oversight are among 202 reforms proposed in response to the Geer shooting that county officials estimate would cost $35 million to implement.
Many of the changes — including requiring police cadets to undergo training in de-escalating hostile situations before learning to fire their weapons — are already underway.
Last month, the board debated heavily over whether to release the name of an officer involved in an incident causing death or serious injury within 10 days. The board finally endorsed the policy.
A decision to require county police officers to wear body cameras was put off until the fall of 2017 to give county officials time to research concerns over privacy related to those devices.
Tuesday’s discussion came a day after Fairfax County police released their first comprehensive assessment of the use of force by county officers, another move for increased transparency that stems from the Geer controversy.
The accounting concluded that 985 officers had been involved in using force on 539 occasions in 2015.
Physical contact, stun guns and vehicle intercepts were the most common types of force deployed. An officer discharged a firearm in one case.
The data revealed that in 98 percent of use-of-force cases, civilians were unarmed. Police officials found a violation of department policy in just one of the cases reviewed in 2015.
The report also found that African American civilians were disproportionately involved in use-of-force cases and field stops. More than 40 percent of use-of-force cases and 25 percent of field stops involved black residents.
Shirley Ginwright, the president of the Fairfax County NAACP, said she was surprised by the number of use-of-force incidents in the county last year and the proportion that involved African Americans.
“It is a concern when a disproportionate number of these cases involve minorities,” Ginwright said. “We are working to see how we can correct things like these in high-crime areas.”
Roessler said the percentage of African Americans involved in use-of-force cases does not indicate that black residents are being targeted by police.
“We as a department are going where the crime is,” he said. “Obviously, I will not tolerate any profiling or discrimination. These calls are all generated through engagement with the community.”
With pressure mounting to better handle police incidents in Fairfax, some supervisors were nonetheless worried about the cost of doing so.
“I want to understand what the rush is to get this done,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield,) who expressed concern about the cost of hiring an auditor and the possibility of creating more work for police department officials who would have to respond to requests from the civilian review panel.
“We’re not rushing to address a problem. We’re rushing to address the issue of accountability and transparency, and we want to do it right,” he said.