You know who's on the review board? The cops, their union bosses and police brass
Thursday, December 8th, 2016 at 8:26am
Virginia’s largest jurisdiction moved forward Tuesday with creating a civilian board to review allegations of police abuse, joining the District, New York and other major U.S. cities that have taken steps to improve police accountability.
Concerns over police misconduct have spread across the country after a spate of fatal shootings by officers sparked protests and became part of the debates in the presidential election.
Fairfax County, whose Board of Supervisors approved the new civilian panel in a 9-to-1 vote, was motivated to act in the face of sharp criticism over how the county handled the fatal police shooting of an unarmed resident, John Geer, in 2013.
Adam Torres, who was fired from the police force two years after Geer’s death, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the case in April.
The case has prompted the county to pursue $35 million in reform efforts, including the hiring earlier this year of an independent auditor whose job will be to monitor use-of-force investigations. Fairfax officials also are considering requiring police officers to wear body cameras.
“What we’re doing here today is taking another step in making a great police department even better and being a model for the nation in how we continue to enhance trust between our community and the police,” said Sharon Bulova (D), chair of the Board of Supervisors.
Last year, Bulova created a police advisory committee that recommended 202 changes, following public outrage over the county’s initial refusal to share police internal affairs files with the Fairfax prosecutor, Raymond Morrogh (D), while he was investigating the Geer shooting. A county attorney also rejected a request by Morrogh to discuss the case with county supervisors, without informing supervisors of the request.
The nine-member civilian review board will scrutinize police department investigations into allegations of police abuse or misconduct. The board may also refer such allegations to the police department, but, unlike in some other jurisdictions, will not have any authority to investigate cases on its own.
If the board does not agree with the police department’s findings in a particular case, it may request that the supervisors order the county police chief to reopen the investigation.
The lone vote against creating the review panel came from Supervisor Pat Herrity, R-Springfield, who called the proposal “an act of political correctness.”
Herrity argued that there is already enough police accountability in Fairfax with the department’s internal affairs bureau and the new auditor position. He said creating a new board would be “duplicative,” as the county prepares for another tough budget year, and could hurt morale within the police department.
Supervisor Catherine Hudgins, D-Hunter Mill, pushed unsuccessfully to allow the board to take testimony from witnesses not interviewed by police in an investigation, arguing that such an expansion of powers would help instill deeper trust from residents who are wary of going to the police.
“We were unresponsive before and it was a very, very difficult environment to live in,” she said. “Citizens felt we were not listening, we were not engaged and that we did not want to be engaged.”
After a county attorney told the board that taking in additional evidence outside of an ongoing police investigation could make Fairfax vulnerable to a lawsuit, the supervisors decided to allow those witnesses to submit written testimony that would be turned over to the police.
Bulova said the various police changes being implemented by the county will help Fairfax avoid police shootings leading to injury or death.
“We don’t have very many of those in Fairfax County,” she said. “And we don’t want to have very many of those in Fairfax County.”