There’s still room for improvement, but presentations July 9 by the Police Civilian Review Panel and Fairfax County’s independent police auditor largely were upbeat about the recent performance of the county’s police department.
According to the review panel’s 2018 report, presented by past chairman Rhonda VanLowe to the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee, the panel received 31 complaints last year about county police.
Forty-one percent of the complaints pertained to alleged violations of law or police policy, 22 percent were allegations of unprofessional conduct and 16 percent were about racial profiling or harassment.
Several of the complaints featured more than one allegation, and five complaints that were investigated resulted in the department’s taking corrective action, VanLowe said.
Some members of the public still are concerned about transparency and accountability within the police department, she added.
“During the panel’s work, we have reviewed examples of outstanding policing, which the public should be made aware of to gain a better understanding of the policies and practices promoted in the department,” VanLowe said. “At the same time, we have reviewed incidents where a different approach or improvements could have been made for a better outcome.”
One of the review panel’s eight recommendations was to establish quarterly meetings with the chiefs of staff of the Board of Supervisors chairman and that of the supervisor who chairs the Public Safety Committee, as well as police representatives and the chairman and vice chairman of the review panel. Two such meetings already have occurred and resulted in productive conversations, VanLowe said.
Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), who chairs the board’s Public Safety Committee, said he was grateful the panel focused not only on police missteps, but highlighted instances where the department had responded effectively.
“Transparency isn’t just about showing problems,” he said. “It’s also about celebrating successes.”
Supervisors at the committee meeting also received the second annual report from independent police auditor Richard Schott, whose office was formed in April 2017.
According to the office’s study of 2015 use-of-force incidents, Fairfax County police did not treat various racial groups differently during use-of-force incidents when the suspects were engaged in similar conduct, Schott said. The auditor said he and the police department were trying to find an academic or research partner to review use-of-force incidents involving African-Americans, relative to their population in the county.
Schott also investigated 18 cases in 2018, including five complaints made directly to his office, eight complaints filed with the Fairfax County Police Department and five that required automatic review.
Of the 13 excessive-force complaints, six involved officers using force to handcuff suspects, six regarded suspects being forcibly taken down, two cases involved a Ripp Hobble restraint device and one instance each of a chokehold and an electronic-control weapon (taser).
Five other cases – three officer-involved shootings, one in-custody death and one in which police employed the Precision Immobilization Technique (PIT) maneuver to end a vehicle chase – required automatic review.
Schott published six incident reports regarding some of the cases and said that all related police investigations had been “impartial and accurate.”
The police auditor made recommendations in half of those cases. Police have implemented some changes with regard to search-warrant procedures and are putting in place measures to allow officers to request help from crisis-intervention personnel to obtain voluntary commitment from people undergoing crises and seek information from family members and witnesses concerning previous behavior of people in crises.
Police also are implementing, with modifications, Schott’s recommendations for new “reasonableness factors” for using force on people not engaged in criminal activities; offering more “less-lethal” options for each patrol shift; equipping all full-time and half the supplemental SWAT team members with multi-launch “less-lethal” options; and revising the department’s vehicle-stopping techniques so officers give prior notification, when possible, that they are about to employ the PIT maneuver.
There was only one recommendation the police department’s leadership decided not to implement: Schott’s suggestion of using the term “non-deadly” instead of “less-lethal” force.
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. said “less-lethal” was the industry’s standard term and Schott said he understood the rationale.
Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) said she hoped future reports would have a glossary to explain the surfeit of acronyms. Cook concurred with that suggestion.
“In my service on the Inova Health Care Services Board . . . every book we get has a glossary in the back because the only words allowed to be spoken in the medical meeting are acronyms,” he said. “Nobody speaks a regular word.”