FCPD progress report met with controversy
By Angela Woolsey/Fairfax County Times
May 26, 2017
The community meeting organized by Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova and Lake Braddock Supervisor John Cook to discuss recommendations for police reforms was intended to highlight the progress that the county has made since the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission published its final report on Oct. 8, 2015.
However, the 90-minute meeting held Tuesday evening in the Fairfax County Government Center’s board auditorium turned out to be more indicative of the amount of work that the county still needs to do in bridging the trust gap between police and the people they serve.
Bulova and Cook, who chairs the board’s public safety committee, summarized what the county has done over the past two years to address the commission’s 202 suggested recommendations, which covered the use of force, independent oversight, mental health and crisis intervention team (CIT) training, recruitment diversity and vetting, and communications.
According to Bulova, the Board of Supervisors has reviewed all of the report’s recommendations and approved 178 of them – or 88 percent – within the first year.
“The Board of Supervisors, police department and other county agencies continue to move with deliberate speed to transform these recommendations into actionable policies,” Bulova said. “…I’m proud of the progress that we’ve made, and I’m especially proud that our Fairfax County Board of Supervisors took very, very seriously the fact that we needed to make changes.”
Bulova originally established the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission on Mar. 3, 2015 in response to a public outcry over the circumstances surrounding the death of John Geer, a Springfield resident who was fatally shot by a Fairfax County police officer in 2013.
The roughly 34-member commission consisted of private citizens, academics, law enforcement representatives, members of the media and the legal community, and county staff.
Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. says that the department began its new de-escalation training in 2016.
In addition, the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy, which serves the FCPD, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, the towns of Herndon and Vienna police departments, and the Fairfax County Fire Marshal’s Office, is already seeing some payoff from efforts to recruit candidates from more diverse communities, according to Roessler.
A 2015 Fairfax County demographics report found that 83 percent of the FCPD’s 1,369 sworn officers were Caucasian, compared to 7 percent African American and 5 percent Hispanic. Combined, African American and Hispanic residents made up almost a quarter of the county’s overall population at the time.
The FCPD also had only 184 female officers, according to that report, which is included in Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) 2016 assessment report for the FCPD.
Roessler recently revised his department’s use-of-force guidelines, also known as general order 540.
With an effective date of Mar. 31, 2017, the new order states that “force is to be used only to the extent it is objectively reasonable to defend oneself or another, to control an individual during an investigative or mental detention, or to lawfully effect an arrest.”
Bulova, Cook, and Roessler touted the county’s creation of a Diversion First program aimed at providing mental health treatment to those who need it instead of sending them to jail.
Launched on Jan. 1, 2016 in the Merrifield Crisis Response Center, the program received 375 individuals who would have otherwise been potentially arrested in its first year, according to Diversion First’s 2016 annual report.
Fairfax County has also implemented a restorative justice initiative where school students work with facilitators to resolve issues, rather than being punished through suspensions or expulsions. This approach is designed to address the school-to-prison pipeline that sees black students in particular disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system at a young age.
The county’s restorative justice program has received more than 400 referrals in this year alone, says Communities of Trust Committee chair Shirley Ginwright, who leads a citizen group intended to strengthen relationships between public safety agencies and the local community.
Among the most prominent reforms to come out of the ad hoc commission’s report, however, are the establishment of an independent auditor and a civilian review panel for the county.
Appointed by the Board of Supervisors, FBI veteran Richard Schott took his position as Fairfax County’s first independent police auditor on Apr. 17.
The auditor’s office is responsible for reviewing internal investigations of FCPD officer-involved incidents that resulted in an individual being killed or seriously injured. It does not conduct independent investigations but can request further inquiries into internal investigations and must review all investigations into resident complaints regarding the use of force.
Approved by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 6, the civilian police review panel is charged with reviewing resident complaints alleging harassment or discrimination, procedural violations, the endangerment of a person in custody, and other possible abuses of authority or misconduct by a Fairfax County police officer.
On Feb. 28, the board appointed nine people to serve on the panel for three-year terms.
“We want to bring our police and community closer together. Independent oversight will help us do that,” Cook said.
Despite county officials’ assertion that progress has been made, many community members said during the public comments portion of Tuesday night’s meeting that their concerns have not been adequately addressed, particularly those related to how law enforcement interacts with people of color and people with disabilities.
“I think this is a positive step in the right direction. We do have a long way to go,” NAACP Fairfax County president Kofi Annan said of the reforms, requesting that the county release data to see if there are racial disparities in who gets diverted from jail through Diversion First.
An administrative investigation and use-of-force report conducted by the FCPD’s internal affairs bureau in 2015 found that 539 community members had been involved in a use-of-force incident, 222 – or 41 percent – of them identified as black.
While 52 percent of use-of-force incidents involved white community members, community demographics indicate that 63 percent of Fairfax County’s populace is Caucasian, whereas only 8 percent of the population is black.
The report’s disciplinary action summary shows that one officer was disciplined for using force in 2015 with an oral reprimand.
Roessler says that he will “shortly” update information on his webpage about how officers are disciplined for the use of force.
Cook indicated that Schott has been tasked with further studying the police department’s use-of-force statistics, but Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Northern Virginia lead organizer Cayce Utley argues that there is already sufficient evidence of racial bias.
“When pressed about the obvious systemic racism, there’s deflection,” Utley said. “There’s ‘we don’t know if it’s really that bad.’ Everyone here is content with the status quo.”
SURJ is a nationwide organization dedicated to mobilizing white people to undermine “support for white supremacy and to help build a racially just society,” according to the Kentucky-based group’s website.
Though Roessler points to his department’s new media relations bureau as proof that transparency and communication has improved, Utley says that the county has provided few opportunities for the public to give input on the ad hoc commission recommendations and how they have been implemented.
The public safety committee meetings never allocate time for public comment, but the board received input on the recommendations from entities like police unions, according to Utley, who says she has attended all of the meetings since the commission report came out.
Utley says that this has undermined some of the reforms that the county has put in place.
The Board of Supervisors has declined to implement eight of the ad hoc commission’s recommendations, according to an interactive progress report available on the county website.
Among the recommendations that have not been implemented is an assurance that information is presented for all officer-involved shootings and lethal incidents within 72 hours, including an update on any discipline that was administered.
The board also chose not to adopt recommendations giving the civilian review panel the authority to retain a criminal investigative consultant and designating that the auditor would serve for a term between two and five years in order to maintain continuity and independence.
Neither the new independent auditor nor the civilian review panel can conduct its own investigations, take testimony, or interview witnesses who may not have been involved in the police department’s investigation.
When the Board of Supervisors met to discuss the civilian review panel in December, independent counsel Julia Judkins informed the board that state law prevents advisory bodies like the panel from having that kind of authority.
“If there were laws at the state level preventing them from creating an independent oversight that was community controlled, then the state needs to fix that too,” Utley said. “But there are things they can do to make incremental change, and they’re just not doing it.”
For his part, Roessler says that he welcomes the criticism and hopes that more community members will actively engage in these discussions with the police department and other public safety agencies.
“I’m really grateful that our community members were direct with all of us,” Roessler said. “I really appreciate that because that’s the way that we can engage and create change.”