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