Newly formed commission to review Fairfax County police policies

This story was originally published in the April 6 print issue. 

An ad hoc police commission including law enforcement, legal experts and citizens was established March 3 by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to review the police department’s and county’s policies and procedures regarding transparency, communication and how to handle officer-involved cases.

Proposed by Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), the commission is largely a response to the controversy surrounding the 2013 shooting of John Geer, an unarmed man, by a Fairfax County police officer. The lack of available information, including the name of the involved officer, in the months following the shooting from the police and local and state authorities led to a public outcry.

“When I realized that people were feeling that way, I thought, ‘You know, I think they’re actually right,’” Bulova said. “We have waited too long to release some information. It’s not fair to the family, not fair to the public, because they have the right to know.”

Officer Adam Torres was identified as the responsible officer in Jan. 2015 when internal affairs documents related to the Geer case, including interviews with other police officers on the scene, were made available on the Fairfax County website.

The county released the information under the order of a Fairfax County judge as part of a civil suit filed by Geer’s family. No decision has been made yet about whether Torres, who remains on paid administrative duty, will be charged, according to a Feb. 6 article in The Washington Post.

Torres allegedly shot Geer after responding to a domestic dispute involving Geer’s longtime partner Maura Harrington, according to a crime incident report and press release on the Fairfax County website. According to a Sept. 2014 article by the Washington Post editorial board, Geer was shot once and was unarmed at the time, though he owned guns.

Bulova said that Fairfax County policies dictate that information about officer-involved cases is not usually released until the police department completes its internal investigation and turns its findings over to the Office of the Commonwealth Attorney, which then determines whether or not to charge the officer with a crime.

Some local advocacy organizations like the Virginia Citizens’ Coalition for Police Accountability have been pushing for the county to change this policy.

“A lot of it is driven by trying to protect the county from civil litigations when police officers conduct themselves irresponsibly,” said VCCPA public affairs director Michelle Evans.

According to Evans, who became involved in VCCPA after a domestic violence call ended with her arrest instead of her ex-husband’s, the statute of limitations on bringing civil suits against the county is two years, so the county and police department delay releasing information about cases involving officers to let it run out.

Bulova said she realized something had gone wrong when over a year passed since the Geer shooting and Commonwealth Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, who had been assigned to the case, still had not made a decision about whether to charge the involved officer. According to Bulova, Morrogh expressed frustration at not receiving adequate information from the Fairfax County police department and, in Dec. 2014, handed the case over to the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, which is conducting an ongoing investigation.

Harrington, who has two daughters with Geer, filed a civil lawsuit against the Fairfax County police department in September 2014. According to The Washington Post, Harrington sued the department, Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. and three unnamed officers for $12 million for gross negligence. Geer’s family, which includes his two daughters, also wanted more information, especially since the officer responsible for shooting Geer had not yet been identified.

The lawsuit is still ongoing and has not yet been settled.

“When I realized that things had gone badly as far as releasing information in a timely way, I decided that maybe our policies that had served us in other cases were not serving us very well,” Bulova said, emphasizing that the ad hoc commission’s purpose is to conduct a broad review of police department and county policies, not to specifically investigate the Geer case.

As chairman, Bulova has the power to create commissions on her own, but she said she brought her police commission proposal before the full Board of Supervisors because she wanted its endorsement.

In her “Board Matter” proposal to the board, Bulova said that the commission’s objective is to recommend changes that “would help Fairfax County to achieve its goal of maintaining a safe community, ensuring a culture of public trust and making sure our policies provide for the fair and timely resolution of police-involved incidents.”

The Board of Supervisors, which has 10 members total including the chairman, approved the commission by a 7-3 vote.

Bulova appointed Michael Hershman, president and CEO of the Fairfax-based risk management firm Fairfax Group and a citizen member of the Board of Supervisors’ audit committee, as chair of the commission.

Hershman says that he became involved in the commission after meeting Bulova in Jan. 2015 and telling her about his concerns regarding the Geer case.

“There’s a national debate that’s going on now about the use of force,” Hershman said. “It’s a healthy debate, because it’s something that we should always be able to re-examine and talk about.”

Hershman has dealt with questions of transparency and ethics throughout his career, co-founding the non-profit coalition Transparency International in 1993 and serving as a member of Interpol’s International Group of Experts on Corruption. He also has some experience in law enforcement and criminal justice from his time working as a special agent specializing in counter-terrorism for U.S. Military Intelligence and investigating government misconduct and financial fraud for the New York State Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Mayor of New York City.

“Michael Hershman has an impressive resume in the area of transparency, in the area of ethics,” Bulova said. “He has the right temperament, the right background, the right credentials, and I feel very fortunate to have him as chairman.”

Including Hershman, the commission has 37 members ranging from police and legal experts to academics, members of the media and citizens. Commission members are a variety of people selected by Bulova, recommended by other members of the Board of Supervisors and some who Bulova decided to include after they expressed an interest in participating.

Among the commission’s citizen members, which include local residents as well as people affiliated with well-known organizations like the president of the Fairfax branch of the NAACP, is Jeff Stewart, who was best friends with John Geer and present when the shooting took place.

According to Bulova, Stewart sent an email to the Board of Supervisors expressing his anger over how the case was being handled.

“He wanted to devote his time to make sure that something good came out of that bad thing that had happened,” Bulova said, adding that Stewart also hopes to try to establish an oversight board to deal with issues involving the police.

The creation of a third-party, civilian oversight panel is among the main goals of the VCCPA, whose executive director, Nicholas Beltrante, was invited to be a member of the ad hoc commission by Bulova.

“When you have a police department the size of Fairfax County that has no oversight, there becomes a mentality over time and a culture that exists where they feel untouchable,” Evans said. “They know nobody’s going to scrutinize their conduct and behavior because it’s never happened in the past. That’s what’s changing with this ad hoc commission.”

The commission had its first official meeting March 23. Members introduced themselves and discussed their expectations for the commission.

Comments ranged from hopeful about the goals of the commission to critical. Mary Kimm, editor of the Alexandria-based Connection Newspapers, said that she hopes the commission will help transform Fairfax County from one of the least transparent places to one of the most, while Sal Culosi, a citizen member whose son was shot and killed by a Fairfax County police officer in 2006, gave a critical assessment of the Fairfax County Police Department. His introduction was greeted by applause.

“I felt that it was an extremely positive meeting,” Hershman said. “It was clear that the commissioners want to be involved and that we all want to do this for the right reasons. We’re not here to attack the police…We’re here to make sure that the policies and procedures that the police have in place are best practices.”

Hershman also announced that the commission will be divided into four sub-committees covering policies on the use of force; communication, transparency and cooperation; police recruitment and vetting; and mental health and Crisis Intervention Team training.

The full commission will meet once a month with the next meeting scheduled for April 22. According to Hershman, each sub-committee will conduct its own interviews and research, likely meeting on a weekly basis.

All of the commission’s meetings will be open to the public, and Hershman said that one of the meetings will be devoted to citizen input, where people who are not members of the commission can express their views. The commission has an Oct. 1 deadline to finish its work, and its final recommendations, which will be presented in a report to the Board of Supervisors, will also be made public.

Noting that the Geer case is tragic but not necessarily representative of the overall relationship between the Fairfax County Police Department and the community, Bulova said that she hopes the ad hoc commission will help the police and county improve their policies when it comes to transparency and communication both with the public and between different governmental departments.

“Sometimes, people mess up, and police officers are no exception,” Bulova said. “But for the most part, our police department tries very hard to work positively with the community.”

Evans said that, while the commission is a step in the right direction, particularly if a civilian oversight system is established, new legislation on the state level, such as the elimination of an exclusion in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that allows police departments to withhold information about ongoing investigations, is necessary to produce significant change. She also said that voters need to be actively involved and informed.

“I think it’s really going to fall on the younger generation to change the status quo and become participatory voters that know what the issues are,” Evans said. “Make these small changes locally, because that’s going to lead to things that bring greater transparency to our government at a national level as well.”

Additional reporting by Hamna Ahmad.

Photo Credit: Amy Rose