Understaffed and anticipating a new chief, the Fairfax County Police Department – like many in the nation – is facing pressure to be more accountable and hire more diverse officers.
Panelists at the McLean Citizens Association’s virtual public-safety forum on April 21 brought a wide variety of perspectives and laments.
Fairfax County police are in a “tailspin, pure and simple,” said Sean Corcoran, president of Fairfax County Coalition of Police, Local 5000.
The department was down 188 officers as of April 11 and likely will see 25 more depart by July 1, Corcoran said. Dozens of recruits have been leaving each academy session and some new officers contemplate leaving before serving the five-year minimum to be vested in their pensions, he said.
Fairfax County has frozen police pay for the past two years (excluding pandemic-related hazard-pay bonuses), but the department has found millions for the body-worn-camera program and police auditor’s office, he said.
Violence is way up in Fairfax County lately, with more firearms seized already this year than in the last decade combined, said retired officer Brad Carruthers, president of the Fairfax County Fraternal Order of Police.
Officers’ day-to-day calls are being met with increased violence, he said.
“People don’t want to go into law enforcement,” Carruthers said. “You’re going to see that number [of officers leaving] jump exponentially in the future.”
As a result of this and nationwide anti-police sentiment, public safety will suffer and officers will be less proactive, said Carruthers, adding that efforts to eliminate “qualified immunity” for police will make things worse.
Qualified immunity, which offers governmental employees exercising discretion some protection from civil lawsuits, has come under national scrutiny in recent months.
“I’m not here to say qualified immunity is the worst thing in the world, in every possible way, because there are times when officials have to have discretion,” said James Bierman, an attorney who is vice chairman and current acting chairman of the Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel.
“But it is used too often to excuse behavior that goes well beyond necessary force.”
The NAACP is asking Gov. Northam to convene a special session of the General Assembly to reintroduce a bill that failed earlier this year, which would have ended qualified immunity, said Karen Campblin, president of the group’s Fairfax County chapter.
“The criminal-justice system is heavily impacted by racial and cultural biases,” she said. “It also includes some outdated judicial precedents, laws and policies, which together culminates into racial disparities over policing, over incarceration and disenfranchisement, particularly for the black people of our community.”
According to the national NAACP, black people are five times more likely than whites to be stopped by police without just cause, Campblin said. Laws that impose restrictions on people with arrests and convictions hurt those people’s future prospects for jobs, housing and education, she said.
Campblin also opposes cash bail, saying it disproportionately affects low-income families and minorities.
Two years after county police fatally shot Kingstowne resident John Geer in August 2013, the Board of Supervisors formed an Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission.
The commission recommended civilian oversight through an independent police auditor, creation of the Police Civilian Review Panel, more supervisory oversight of vehicle-stopping techniques and recruitment of high-quality officers who reflect the county’s diversity, said former commission member Adrian Steel.
The Washington region’s law-enforcement market is highly competitive, with local police departments and federal agencies vying for talent, Corcoran said. This scarcity has hampered efforts to hire from the limited pool of minority applicants, other panelists said.
The ad hoc commission also recommended implementing Diversion First, a program that gives low-level offenders alternatives besides incarceration, and undertaking efforts to de-escalate crises.
Steel, who served as inaugural chairman of the Police Civilian Review Panel, said he is looking forward to the department’s full rollout of its body-worn camera program this July, which will include the agency’s tactical teams.
Despite recommended changes to the department’s pursuit policies, the number of pursuits for traffic infractions has not changed, although command staff tend to abort low-level chases quickly, Steel said.
Departmental transparency also lags. “The disposition for disclosure has not fully taken hold,” he said.
(A police spokesman recently told the Sun Gazette to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the number of sworn officers on the force, what constitutes a full complement and how many officers the department currently is short.)
The county’s Civilian Review Panel seeks to enhance police legitimacy and trust, but lacks independent investigative authority, Bierman said. Its scrutiny of police investigations resembles reviews of officials’ calls at sporting events, with decisions to overturn needing to meet a higher standard, he said.
The panel does not handle use-of-force investigations; these go to the county’s first independent police auditor Richard Schott, hired in 2017. A study by two universities, commissioned by Schott’s office, will identify reasons for racial disparity in use-of-force cases and recommend methods for improved data collection and analysis. Schott will present the team’s report to supervisors in June.
County police already have adopted forward-thinking policies, Schott said. “From an oversight and police-reform standpoint, I think Fairfax County is somewhat ahead of the national curve,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we have everything in place perfectly.”