Updates on Police Accountability in Fairfax, Virginia
On May 10th, Fairfax County held its second public safety committee meeting of the year, where the Board of Supervisors discussed recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum regarding the release of public information and also general use of force recommendations. Members of the ad hoc committee who served on the communications and use of force subcommittees again provided input on the same recommendations they provided six months ago. An audio recording of the meeting is available here: https://soundcloud.com/fairfaxcounty/may-10-2016-public-safety-committee-meeting.
While some might feel encouraged by the fact that the public safety committee has already met more times in the past six months than it did in the previous four years (before October, the last meeting had been in June, 2011), it’s obvious that the county is just putting on an extended dog and pony show to give the appearance of taking action, while doing precious little to address long-standing deficiencies with the police department and proper oversight of it by the Board of Supervisors.
Use of Force
The PERF report discussed at this meeting was its Guiding Principles on Use of Force report, which was a bit odd given that the Board of Supervisors already paid PERF $80,000 to conduct a specific review of the FCPD’s use of force policy and the Ad Hoc Commission had also produced recommendations regarding use of force that were included in its final report. Neither set of findings has been fully digested or acted upon by the County.
From the Mount Vernon Gazette:
Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner, chairman of the Ad Hoc commission Use of Force subcommittee, addressed the perceived speed of Fairfax County implementing recommendations from the commission and PERF (some recommendations overlap).
Citing the County’s own matrix that breaks down each recommendation by topic, stakeholders and status, among other identifiers, Niedzielski-Eichner computed that 16 percent (11) of the commission’s use of force recommendations have been implemented since the full set was presented to the Board of Supervisors Oct. 8, 2015. Only seven percent (14) of all the recommendations have been implemented, he said, while 59 percent are still categorized as “under review.”
“Since this report is the only widely publicly available metric of progress against the Commission recommendations,” Niedzielski-Eichner said, “is it any wonder that the community is left with the false impression — in my judgment — that the County may not be committed to implementing the Commission and PERF recommendations?”
Supervisor Pat Herrity, who at least pretended to be disturbed about the Geer shooting until after he won re-election, used the opportunity to grandstand for the police department, dismissing reform as a distraction and a waste of money.
Pat Herrity laments that implementation would take money away from police, fewer cops on the street. Says #FairfaxAdHoc is a distraction.
— SURJ NoVa (@SURJ_NoVa) May 10, 2016
Isn’t it interesting how politicians never have any concern for the huge costs of police misconduct, but suddenly cannot stop talking about money as soon as the topic of police reform comes up? If politicians were truly concerned about responsible fiscal stewardship, they would work to prevent the loss of millions of tax dollars in police misconduct lawsuits by identifying bad cops and removing them from the force before they can hurt more people, instead of leaving them in place to pile up abuses.
Equipping Fairfax police officers with body cameras and rebuilding the community trust lost as a result of the John Geer cover up have been two prominent themes over the past year or so. Fortunately for Fairfax County officials, the Department of Justice offered $20 million in funding for law enforcement agencies to purchase body cameras last year. Fairfax County officials didn’t go for that, though. Instead, they chose to apply for DOJ funding to hire more cops. Take a look at their funding priorities.
They applied for a $1 million dollar grant to hire 8 shiny new revenue generators (page 121).
Notice how they didn’t bother with any of the Building Trust areas from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Report. That’s because they don’t care about little things like transparency, fairness and respect, or community engagement (outside of grip and grin opportunities and cops <3 kids type PR events).
Paid shill for the Fairfax Coalition of Police Local 5000 union, Sean Shitbag Corcoran took the opportunity to do his typical victim blaming regarding the department’s excessive and inappropriate use of force. From WTOP:
“If somebody makes that choice that they’re going to take that route and the officer or the officers have to use force, it needs to be definitive, it needs to be overwhelming, and they need to take care of it and get it done as soon as possible and resolve the situation as quickly as possible, because the longer we delay these things, that’s when injuries occur.”
This conveniently obscures the truth about the FCPD’s greatest hits, which involve shooting an unarmed man standing in his doorway with his hands up, “accidentally” shooting an unarmed barefoot man who’d just walked outside his house to pay off a bet he’d made with a soulless FCPD bottom feeder he’d been conned into thinking was his friend, and shooting an unarmed man in the back because of a phantom “reaching for a gun” move that none of the other cops on the scene saw. Meanwhile, they let an armed man with a history of violence mosey about his business after being busted driving drunk and stalking his estranged wife so that he could return to the scene and almost beat his wife’s friend to death with a hatchet.
Communications and Information Release
Fairfax County paid Police Executive Research Forum $100,000 to review its communications policies regarding release of information in officer-involved shootings and other critical incidents. This is despite the fact that the ad hoc commission already provided an extensive report along with well-researched and well-reasoned recommendations regarding the release of information for free. Read PERF’s report.
While the PERF recommendations are not as extensive or in-depth as the ones from the ad hoc commission, the two are generally in agreement reading the need to emphasize a predisposition towards the quick release of information, including the names of officers involved in a shooting, and away from blanket exemptions for withholding certain types of information:
“The Subcommittee recommended that the FCPD provide the officer’s name ‘as soon as possible but preferably within a week,’ which is a bit broader than PERF’s recommendation that the Department release the name within two to five days after the incident unless there is a credible threat. PERF agrees with the Subcommittee’s recommendation that, if the FCPD decides to withhold the officer’s name, the reason for doing so should be clearly articulated to the public, and PERF further recommends that FCPD release background information about the officer, such as the officer’s prior involvement in officer-involved shootings.”
The main difference with PERF’s review is they conducted interviews and focus groups to see how Fairfax County officials and employees feel about releasing information to the public. The interviews with Supervisors found that nearly all of them “agreed that the FCPD should release the name of the officer involved at some point during the investigation, unless there was a compelling reason – such as a credible threat against the safety of the officer or the officer’s family – to withhold this information.”
Great! The police department and everyone else involved in this process, reports to the Board of Supervisors, so let’s start being transparent, right? Hold on. According to Tim Peterson with the Connection Newspapers: “Chief Roessler said he would prefer to wait up to 10 days in order to complete a thorough risk assessment for the officer involved and his or her family.”
Attendees from local activist group SURJ NoVA, reported that the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Sharon Bulova, “supports slower release of information if FCPD wants, Board having say over release of officer names, minimal summary.” Pat Herrity, who previously openly criticized the stonewalling in the John Geer case by his own colleagues, came out swinging against the release of officer’s names, preferring to pretend the case is an exception rather than just another incident in FCPD’s long-standing tradition of killing unarmed men and then refusing to release information.
Sean “We could all be Adam Torres” Corcoran, said “release of an officer’s name who’s involved with a lethal incident can elicit ‘vile things put out there on the internet,’” and asked “Why does the name release become a lightning rod? Who benefits?”
Meanwhile, Butthurt Brad Carruthers of the FOP thought attendees would be slow enough to believe that the police department does not release the names and photographs of civilian suspects. If memory alone did not suffice to disprove that falsehood, the press releases and tweets from the department would also serve that purpose.
“Merni Fitzgerald, chair of the Ad Hoc commission communications subcommittee, responded that officers and the police department shouldn’t have anything to hide. With information about the officer provided besides the name, they would be identifiable anyway, she argued.” Additionally, the benefit is that the public can learn about this individual’s history. Officers involved in extrajudicial executions are often found to have previous incidents of excessive force and other misconduct complaints, and even have shuffled between various agencies to avoid termination. This is the exact sort of information that the Virginian-Pilot newspaper sued the state to uncover.
Tom Wilson, the PERF representative who presented their findings, reiterated a quote from former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey that they included in their report: “An officer cannot expect to shoot somebody and remain anonymous – it’s just not realistic.”
Importantly, the PERF report included a 2014 California Supreme Court ruling that made it mandatory for the names of officers involved in shootings to be released “unless there is specific evidence of a threat to the officer’s safety.” The court’s ruling emphasized that the evidence of a threat must be based on a “particularized showing,” and that “vague safety concerns that apply to all officers involved in shootings are insufficient to tip the balance against disclosure of officer names.”
This is in stark contrast to the Fairfax County Police Department’s standard practice of sending police officers involved in shootings home with service weapons due to vague safety concerns, even though their names have routinely not been released to the public and there were no plans to make them public. This practice seems all the more absurd and egregious considering how often the police department and county officials pat themselves on the back over how Fairfax County is “the safest jurisdiction of its size in the nation.”
Some other items of note from the PERF report on communications:
The report claims “The County Attorney’s office does not become involved in use-of-force incidents or other critical police incidents unless a legal claim is brought against the county.” That’s an extremely odd statement given the numerous reports that it was the County Attorney’s Office that interfered in the John Geer investigation by preventing the police department from releasing information to the prosecutor’s office.
According to PERF:
Many of the Supervisors agreed, however, that the decision about whether to release information should not be made primarily by the Fairfax County Attorney’s Office. They believe that the County Attorney’s advice was based on the sole interest of protecting the county from civil liability and failed to take into consideration what was in the public’s best interest. Many Supervisors also felt that they were given misleading and conflicting advice about what information could be released under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA), and that they did not understand that the FCPD legally had the discretion to release more than it did. One Supervisor said that the County Attorney’s job “should be to advise on options, not dictate what happens.”
This is a classic mealy-mouthed, do nothing, say nothing display from the Board of Supervisors, many of whom have been government officials longer than I have been alive. Why do they have such an appallingly inadequate understanding of the FOIA laws that impact the duties of their office? How did they miss the various reports over the years about how the FCPD’s refusal to disclose information in officer-involved shootings was a willful, discretionary act, not a requirement of state law? How have they neglected to look at their own organizational chart which clearly shows that both the County Attorney’s Office and the police department report to them, not the other way around. If they feel they have been so poorly served by the County Attorney’s office, rather than whining to outsiders about their own failure to exert appropriate control over their own employees, perhaps they should find some backbone and maybe even fire the people responsible.
Purported Changes in Transparency within the Fairfax County Police Department
The report states, “The FCPD has recognized the challenges and mistakes from the past, and it is now working to turn the page towards releasing accurate and comprehensive information in a timely manner.” Unfortunately, we have two recent cases through which we can examine the veracity of this claim.
Paul Arthur Gianelos was a 45-year-old non-verbal autistic man who had wandered away from his caretaker during a trip to a local park on April 20th. Even though Gianelos’ family said that he’d previously been beaten up by the police on a previous occasion when he had wandered off, the caretakers called the police who then located him and, according to a press release from the police department:
“Mr. Gianelos became physically combative with the officer and a struggle ensued. The officer requested assistance and as three additional officers arrived, Mr. Gianelos, who remained combative, was taken to the ground and handcuffed. He sustained a minor abrasion during the scuffle and rescue was summoned. He was alert and breathing when rescue was called. Mr. Gianelos then experienced an apparent medical emergency, went into cardiac arrest and CPR was administered as he was transported to Inova Fairfax Hospital where he was pronounced deceased a short time later. No weapons were used against Mr. Gianelos during this incident.”
Did the Fairfax County Police Department release the names of the involved officers within 5 days? No. But they did release them 7 days later in another post, which is in keeping with the Ad Hoc Commission recommendations:
“The first patrol officer to locate Mr. Gianelos in the 3100 block of Annandale Road was Master Police Officer (MPO) Michael Meszaros, a 25-year veteran …The first back-up officer to arrive on the scene was Private First Class (PFC) Hyun Chang, a 6-year veteran, who attempted to assist MPO Meszaros in escorting Mr. Gianelos to a patrol cruiser for safety until they could reunite him with the caretakers. It was at this time there was a struggle and the two officers and Mr. Gianelos found themselves on the ground, and Officer Jessica Kenna and her Field Training Instructor PFC Courtney Young, a 15-year veteran, arrived on the scene to assist with securing Mr. Gianelos in handcuffs to render the situation safe for all, until Mr. Gianelos could be reunited with his caretakers.”
There have been no further updates since April 27th, not even to relay the results of the autopsy conducted the day after Gianelos died; The FCPD News blog states updates will be posted as information becomes available or within 30 days.
An earlier example is Jeffrey Ponce Aquilar, a pedestrian who was struck and killed by a Fairfax police officer driving a cruiser on April 2nd. The partial name of the involved officer was released 5 days later in an update on the FCPD News site: “Officer Salino, a two-year veteran of the police department assigned to the Franconia District Station, was operating the cruiser involved in the crash.” Payroll records previously obtained by Northern Virginia Cop Block show only one sworn officer with that last name, Officer Gregory Joseph Salino. There have been no further updates on the case since April 8th, and none have been promised.
While the 1-week timeframe for release of officer’s names is a considerable improvement over past practices, the department has yet to commit to this as a formal adopted practice. It also remains to be seen if FCPD will heed PERF’s calls to:
- release past history of any other officer-involved shootings (and this should be expanded to include other relevant incidents such as use of force, car accidents, et cetera)
- publicly release the police reports and supplemental police reports from the criminal investigation, after redacting information as necessary to address privacy concerns
- release the findings from administrative or Internal Affairs investigations
- not base disclosure decisions “solely on fears that disclosure would lead to litigation or unfavorable media coverage,” which is a clear conflict of interest, if not outright obstruction of justice
What is clear is that Fairfax County officials think residents will keep falling for the same ol’ okey doke forever. They are one more unjustified shooting away from finding out.