Cre­at­ing a cit­i­zen over­sight panel is one of sev­eral ways to bring the depart­ment into the 21st cen­tury.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

THE UN­WAR­RANTED death of John Geer, the un­armed man shot and killed by a Fair­fax County po­lice of­fi­cer in 2013 as he stood on the doorstep of his own house in Spring­field, seemed for the longest time akin to death-by-light­ning-bolt. A tragic event, to be sure, but one that im­parted no lessons, trig­gered no con­se­quences and en­gen­dered no re­forms. The of­fi­cial re­sponse: too bad, just one of those things.

Ow­ing to pub­lic out­rage in Fair­fax, that has now changed. Af­ter two years of pros­e­cu­to­rial paral­y­sis, both at the fed­eral and state lev­els, the po­lice of­fi­cer who shot Mr. Geer, Adam Tor­res, was in­dicted on mur­der charges this sum­mer. And, this month, a county com­mis­sion es­tab­lished to re­view po­lice depart­ment pro­ce­dures emerged from six months of de­lib­er­a­tions with an ar­ray of tough rec­om­men­da­tions that would es­tab­lish a new reg­i­men of ac­count­abil­ity for the cops.

The com­mis­sion’s rec­om­men­da­tions, adopted unan­i­mously, will now be put to the county’s Board of Su­per­vi­sors. They de­serve ro­bust sup­port, es­pe­cially the one most likely to en­counter push­back from depart­ment: the es­tab­lish­ment of a civil­ian panel to re­view al­le­ga­tions of po­lice abuse and mis­con­duct.

Fair­fax’s po­lice depart­ment, with 1,400 sworn of­fi­cers, is, af­ter the state po­lice, the big­gest law en­force­ment agency in Vir­ginia. Be­fore Mr. Geer’s death, and sev­eral other sim­i­larly ques­tion­able po­lice shoot­ings in re­cent years, it en­joyed a ster­ling rep­u­ta­tion. But the af­ter­math of the Geer shoot­ing — wit­nessed in broad day­light by sev­eral other of­fi­cers (who didn’t shoot) as well as neigh­bors — was a text­book case of how not to cul­ti­vate the pub­lic’s trust. Ba­sic in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing the name of the of­fi­cer who shot Mr. Geer, was with­held. For months, the depart­ment of­fered no co­her­ent (or true) ex­pla­na­tion of what had hap­pened. Prose­cu­tors punted the case to the feds, with no ap­par­ent jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Po­lice and prose­cu­tors fi­nally awoke from their tor­por and did their jobs — but not un­til Mr. Geer’s fam­ily, jus­ti­fi­ably an­gry and be­wil­dered at the of­fi­cial in­er­tia, filed suit, a U.S. sen­a­tor started ask­ing ques­tions and county res­i­dents started protest­ing pub­licly.

Sound poli­cies and pro­ce­dures would pre­vent an­other such farce, as the com­mis­sion em­pow­ered by the Board of Su­per­vi­sors un­der­stood. In ad­di­tion to its rec­om­men­da­tion that a seven-mem­ber cit­i­zens’ panel be es­tab­lished to re­view al­leged po­lice mis­con­duct, the com­mis­sion urged that an in­de­pen­dent au­di­tor be em­pow­ered to over­see in­ter­nal po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions in cases in­volv­ing the use of force, in­clud­ing when po­lice kill civil­ians. The au­di­tor would be named by and re­port to the Board of Su­per­vi­sors.

In ad­di­tion, the com­mis­sion laid out an ar­ray of re­forms whose ef­fect would be to tilt the po­lice to­ward 21st-cen­tury poli­cies of trans­parency and in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing, and more re­straint in the use of force by of­fi­cers in tense sit­u­a­tions. Key to that is the de­ploy­ment of more teams or in­di­vid­ual of­fi­cers with spe­cial­ized train­ing in deal­ing with men­tally ill peo­ple, who now con­sti­tute big shares of those de­tained and jailed in the county.

Grum­bling has al­ready be­gun, par­tic­u­larly about the civil­ian re­view panel. The county po­lice chief, Ed­win Roessler, is with­hold­ing his con­sent, and the po­lice union has re­jected it out­right.

The fact is, most of the na­tion’s largest po­lice de­part­ments have such re­view pan­els, and most of them in­clude or are com­posed of civil­ians, and for good rea­son; that’s whom the depart­ment serves. Whether the Board of Su­per­vi­sors stands up to the depart­ment or suc­cumbs to it will be a test of elected of­fi­cials’ back bone and re­solve to clean up the po­lice.

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