Fairfax Co. leaders press for patience on police overhaul

FAIRFAX, Va. — Nearly three years after John Geer was shot and killed by a police officer in his Springfield home, and weeks after that officer pleaded guilty, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors took up recommendations for changes to use of force and transparency.

Community members said Fairfax County police mishandled the release of information regarding the 2013 shooting of John Geer, which created many of the concerns discussed Tuesday, said Tom Wilson of the Police Executive Research Forum.

Wilson’s group and a county commission, formed in the wake of Geer’s death, have made dozens of recommendations to the county that are being worked through by the board over the next year.

Only 7 percent of the recommendations have been completed.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova understands that votes on use of force policies and transparency next month may not appear to be coming soon enough, but joins other supervisors in backing more deliberate action.

“The public feels that we’re taking too much time,” Bulova said. “However, these are weighty issues, and we don’t want to look back a year or two or more and say we were too hasty and that we made bad decisions. This is important stuff.”

Tuesday’s committee meeting, and expected votes in late June, focus on communication and use of force.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh said oversight of investigations and release of information that he is allowed to share ethically could help turn things around.

“I feel public confidence is on the wane,” he said.

His office was set to take former Fairfax County police officer Adam Torres to trial for the murder of John Geer, but Torres agreed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

Even though many suggestions to the county remain outstanding, the chair of the ad hoc police commission’s use of force subcommittee, Phil Niedzielski-Eichner, praised Police Chief Ed Roessler for progress in many areas.

Supervisor John Foust said Roessler is making changes that at least will help public perception.

“I see a change, so we can argue about whether it was always this way or not, but I think it was a great police force, I think you’re doing some things that are going to make it better,” Foust said.

The county does not plan to immediately address some other commission recommendations, like police body cameras or changes to freedom of information laws.

Sean Corcoran of the Fairfax Coalition of Police Local 5000 said while the much-trumpeted new training is great, it is not a major shift.

“I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but I see absolutely nothing new here,” he said. “This is fundamentals in communication, these are fundamentals in what we expect of our officers, there’s nothing that I haven’t been hearing for 15 years in this department and beyond that.”

Officers’ representatives questioned recommendations from PERF and the ad hoc commission to release the names of officers involved in deadly incidents within a week, raising concerns about potential threats to officers.

He also questioned the emphasis on proportional use of force.

“This is not some sort of choreographed fight scene from a Hollywood movie. 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,” Corcoran said.

While there is public pressure to move forward with recommendations, both from members of the commission and others in the public who attended Tuesday’s committee meeting, Supervisor Pat Herrity is concerned that six police department command staff are spending the majority of their time working to address the recommendations.

“I think we need to move this stuff forward, but I don’t want to have this become the obsession when we’re dealing with heroin issues, human trafficking issues, crimes against the elderly issues, [etc.],” Herrity said.

Roessler says the department is doing new training and other changes so far within the approved budget.

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