THE AGONIZINGLY protracted story of John Geer
The Washington Post
THE AGONIZINGLY protracted story of John Geer, the unarmed man shot to death by a Fairfax County police officer as he stood, hands up, in the doorway of his Springfield home almost three years ago, might finally have reached its end. Yet the county, which pledged reforms so that no such sorry sequence of events could ever recur, still has work to do.
Last week Adam D. Torres, the now-former officer who pulled the trigger, appeared in court to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, belatedly express remorse and agree with prosecutors to a 12-month prison sentence. If a judge accepts the deal, it will conclude a saga of police malfeasance, official stonewalling and political paralysis, all of which left a stain on Virginia’s biggest jurisdiction and its 1,300-officer police force.
It’s certainly reasonable to believe, as Mr. Geer’s parents do, that Mr. Torres got off lightly. Four other police officers contradicted Mr. Torres’s account that he had seen Mr. Geer suddenly lower his hands, as if going for a weapon. To the contrary, they said his hands were up when Mr. Torres fired the fatal shot into Mr. Geer’s chest.
Nonetheless, Mr. Torres, who was jailed without bond in August, will remain behind bars for now. Fired last year from the police force, he is a convicted felon, and he will never again work as a law enforcement officer. His punishment is substantial. Mr. Geer’s former partner, who was reluctant to testify — as was the couple’s 19-year-old daughter — was amenable to the plea deal.
Notwithstanding Mr. Torres’s plea, no resolution has been reached for the systemic and institutional problems in Fairfax laid bare in the aftermath of Mr. Geer’s death. Chief among these is the glaring lack of accountability in the police department, whose once-excellent reputation has been badly damaged.
That damage was self-inflicted. Following Mr. Geer’s unwarranted death, the department went into a defensive crouch, providing no information on the case for a year and refusing to cooperate with state and federal prosecutors. The stonewalling, which the police undertook with the connivance of the county attorney’s office, which was derelict in its duty, stunned the top prosecutor in Fairfax. “I’ve never seen anyone act like that in a position of trust, withholding information,” said the prosecutor, Raymond F. Morrogh. “It really hurt all the people involved. It was dead wrong. I hope it never happens again.”
To avoid such a recurrence, officials empaneled a commission to review police policies and practices. The commission produced many recommendations, some of which have been adopted, including new use-of-force guidelines that emphasize restraint and de-escalation.
Other recommendations are under review by the county’s elected Board of Supervisors, including ones that would mandate a greater degree of information-sharing and empower an independent auditor to oversee internal police investigations in cases involving the use of force.
A critical test of the county’s commitment to reform is whether it establishes a civilian board to review alleged police misconduct. Pushback from unions representing rank-and-file police should not deter supervisors from ensuring that the panel consists of civilians, not current and former police. Police departments around the country have gained credibility from such panels; Fairfax County must not pull back from the brink of real reform.