Beset for months by departmental discord over his leadership, Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. announced Nov. 5 he would step down Feb. 1 next year after eight years of leading the Fairfax County Police Department.
The decision drew somewhat pro-forma statements of thanks for his service from elected officials, and veritable cheers from the leader of a police organization, who called for an outsider to be brought in to lead the department.
Roessler “presided over the department during a tough period of time, both nationally and locally,” said Chairman Jeffrey McKay (D). “Clearly, he has made some decisions that have made some people unhappy. Frankly, that’s leadership.”
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Roessler began his career with the New York City Department of Investigation and came to the Washington area in 1985 for an internship at American University. He joined the county’s police force, Virginia’s largest, in 1989 and rose through its ranks.
“Since July 17th, 1989, each day I’ve been thankful for the gifts of affirmation through your amazing work which includes acts of kindness and valor by each of you and those who came before you which makes the FCPD one of the best in the country,” Roessler wrote in a letter to departmental staff.
The department’s last leadership change began in October 2012 after Chief David Rohrer was promoted to deputy county executive for public safety. James Morris then served briefly as acting chief before becoming Vienna’s police chief in March 2013.
Roessler then was appointed the county’s interim police chief and he became chief in July 2013. County officials credited him with helping the department achieve national and state accreditation and re-accreditation; increasing transparency; implementing a body-worn-camera program; enhancing diversity recruitment; and modifying use-of-force policies.
Shortly into Roessler’s tenure, county police in August 2013 shot and killed unarmed Kingstowne resident John Geer. This led to the firing of Officer Adam Torres, who eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and formation of the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, which produced more than 200 recommendations, many of which the department has implemented. Roessler also helped establish the Independent Police Auditor’s Office.
Police groups pressed for Roessler’s resignation in June this year after he sided with the county Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano on charging Officer Taylor Timberlake after he tasered a man in Mount Vernon following a possible case of mistaken identity.
About 300 officers participated in an Oct. 15 “listening session” held by the Fairfax County Police Association and the Fairfax Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). Supervisor Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) said the issues raised had percolated for years and did not just reflect U.S. controversies over policing.
“Our police department is in crisis – a word I do not use lightly,” Herrity wrote in a newsletter to constituents. “Our officers are operating in a culture of fear and retaliation, afraid to do their jobs with conflicting guidance and a lack of support from leadership.”
FOP president Brad Carruthers said the group’s members were “ecstatic” about Roessler’s retirement decision, adding the department’s morale was “pretty much destroyed” after Timberlake’s arrest.
“Officers in Fairfax County are doing a great job and when they’re called into question, the unfortunate part is, they’re not having the [chief’s] backing,” he said.
The county government will conduct a nationwide search for a new chief and seek community input along the way, McKay said. The county in the past has hired chiefs from within the department and without, and there likely will be numerous internal candidates, he said.
“We’ll be looking for that chief to continue to constantly evolve this department to improve transparency, improve community outreach, improve crime prevention, continue reforms in mental health – all of the things that this board has championed and our community expects,” McKay said.
“You don’t become the safest jurisdiction of your size in the nation and maintain a national reputation as a leader in crime prevention and safety by accident,” McKay said. “You do that because you’re constantly evolving.”
Those challenges include what some people say is a disproportionate number of police uses of force involving persons of color. Carruthers predicted full disclosure of the facts would exonerate police, and said ongoing controversies have led some county officers to avoid proactive policing.
Carruthers, who retired in February after 26 years with the county’s police force, said his group wants the next chief to be an outsider with no ties to the department.
Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) complimented Roessler’s service, saying “his commitment to public safety and public service is exemplary, and he is richly deserving of our thanks and an enjoyable and peaceful retirement,” she said.
“We will select a new chief who is a great leader who will earn the trust and respect of our residents and our great police officers going forward,” added Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville).
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