The expectation is there, in black and white, in the Fairfax County Police Department’s Use of Force general orders: “duty to intervene.”
It’s one of the key policy changes sought by police reform advocates in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police, but it’s been in force in Fairfax County for four years already.
The policy says “any officer present and observing another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the circumstances” must insert himself. Fairfax County Chief Edwin Roessler told WTOP on Tuesday that the policy can be crucial in maintaining “the sanctity of life.”
Codification of the expectations for county officers is fairly recent, Roessler said. In 2013, John Geer, of Springfield, who was unarmed and had his hands raised, was killed by a Fairfax County officer after a standoff outside his home.
Officer Adam Torres was charged with second-degree murder, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to one year behind bars, with time served.
Without mentioning his name, Roessler said Torres “was told several times to put his gun away,” by other officers, but he took out his gun and killed Geer.
“We did not have a duty to intervene policy as specific as we [have had] since 2016,” said Roessler. “It’s memorialized in policy.”
Asked how a junior officer would be expected to step in to prevent further use of excessive force in a dangerous situation, Roessler said it requires preparation and judgment.
“When do you need to step in and take over the situation, verbally, and sometimes physically?” Roessler said. “In the most severe cases you have to tell the officer ‘Put your gun away, back off, slow it down.'”
He added, “These are human relations aspects, with perishable skills. You can’t just put a policy in place; you have to constantly train on this.”
As the Fairfax County police continue their reforms, along with departments around the country in response to the death of Floyd, Roessler said he is proud of the improvements his department has made in the past few years following an ad-hoc board recommended 202 changes sparked by reviews after Geer’s death.
Community involvement and independent panels “is helping us across use of force, transparency, responding to those with mental health crises, achieving diversity in our labor force, and creating accountability,” Roessler said.
Last week, Fairfax County Officer Tyler Timberlake was arrested and charged with three counts of assault and battery, for using a stun gun several times on a disoriented man, who did not appear to pose a threat. As WTOP first reported, prosecutors and the defense said the officer shocked a man he mistakenly thought he recognized.
“We have a lot more to do,” Roessler said. “This is not a one-and-done.”
He added, “We want to look at ourselves, and allow academic institutions and others to study us, propose changes that we can discuss with our stakeholders, and create positive change.”
“That’s what reform is; that’s what reconciliation and healing is,” Roessler said. “It’s engaging with the community to have a police department that delivers essential police services, that is in sync with the community’s desires.”