Policing Through Change: Officers leaving the job fear prosecution, not reforms

Despite a largely peaceful Inauguration Day, police officers remain anxious following the attack on the U.S. Capitol, where rioters targeted officers. Threats to their safety are just the latest concern in what has been a tumultuous year in policing.

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty spoke with police officers in departments across the D.C. area for her series “Policing Through Change.” 

Three of the four officers interviewed for this series said they wouldn’t recommend being a police officer, mostly due to the fear they have of being prosecuted for what happens on the job.

Officers said that while part of the career they chose requires them to willingly risk their personal safety, they had felt a measure of protection in the support they got from their department and elected leaders.

That support has now abated, they agreed: The loss of administrative backing, coupled with what they perceive to be an increased risk of prosecution, has some officers questioning whether the risk they assume is too great.

“A lot of officers who are eligible for retirement are just leaving. That’s 100% happening,” one officer from a Maryland police department said.

In Fairfax County, an officer with less than a decade with the department said he knows of colleagues with only a few years of experience who are transferring to other roles so as not to lose their time earned: “They’re kind of like: ‘I have nothing invested in this to this point. I’m going to get out while I can and start something else that’s easier.’ They don’t want to risk it.”

Some are transferring their skills to become county firefighters. The last fire academy class “was made up mostly of former police who were just doing a lateral over there,” the officer said.

“We have no support,” said an officer with more than a decade of experience who wanted to remain anonymous. “We are more in fear of ourselves and our department and prosecution than we are of the job, [of] a bad guy coming up and shooting or hurting us.”

For example, he said, he thought twice during a recent domestic violence call about putting his arm up to stop a woman from walking toward him out of fear he could be charged with assault.

“It’s just too risky … because we’re being prosecuted left and right for doing our jobs. It’s just risk versus reward. It’s high risk and like no reward,” the officer said.

He was so fearful of retaliation he asked not only his name but the name of the department he works for be withheld.

Area officers facing charges

In Anne Arundel County, two officers were prosecuted in 2020. Only one of them, Jacob Miskill, was charged with crimes while he was working; he was accused of stealing firearms from a resident’s home. He’s facing felony burglary, theft and misconduct in office charges.

In Fairfax County, officer Tyler Timberlake was indicted on three counts of misdemeanor assault and battery for his treatment of a man in custody. WTOP has reported Timberlake plans to sue the department, chief and prosecutor over the charges.

Six Prince George’s County police officers were indicted or charged with crimes in 2020, according to the department, and two of them involved the use of force: Pvt. Bryant Strong for assault and Cpl. Michael Owen for murder. (Also charged were Cpl. Tristan Thigpen for child sex abuse, Cpl. Luis Aponte for a theft scheme, Cpl. Brian Newcomer for attempted rape, and Cpl. Ivan Mendez for misconduct in office.)

‘They don’t want to risk it’

Meanwhile, police reforms are going into effect in Virginia and will be taken up by lawmakers in Maryland during the current legislative session.

Virginia lawmakers finalized the sweeping criminal justice reform package during a 12-week special session last year, while lawmakers in Maryland are set this year to consider a working group’s approved recommendations.

In D.C., Council members made more immediate changes to policing policies through an emergency order last summer.

The reforms in Virginia, which go into effect in March, include a ban on no-knock warrants, the establishment of a statewide code of conduct for police, and a limit on the use of neck restraints.

It’s not the reforms that have Fairfax County police officers nervous, the officer from that county said: “I can’t think of a circumstance where you’d be justified in choking someone, basically; that’s not what you’re taught.”

Rather, it’s a perceived lack of support from their department and county leaders — and the possibility of being prosecuted — that is raising their anxiety.

“Nobody knows right now, because of the situation with our chief, what’s going to happen if you fight with somebody and there’s a bad outcome. They pull a knife and you pull a gun — are you going to be charged with a crime? Are you going to end up in handcuffs?” he said.

These questions linger, he added, due to outgoing Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler’s decision to publicly support charging Officer Tyler Timberlake for using a stun gun on an unarmed Black man. Roessler called the officer’s use of force “unacceptable and criminal.”

Roessler is retiring next month, but the officer said his colleagues’ attitudes won’t change as long as Steve Descano is serving as commonwealth’s attorney.

“There would still be a little apprehension with the commonwealth’s attorney because he’s shown he’s very anti-police. He’s basically trying to be the commonwealth’s attorney and the legislative branch.”

Told of the anonymous officers’ opinion, Descano responded: “I’m committed to the call for change in our criminal justice system that our community has been demanding, which means I’ll always bring their values to the courthouse, regardless of the resistance I encounter from those who may not share them.”

It is unclear whom the Board of Supervisors will name to replace Roessler when he retires, but the officer said he wants a chief who will represent officers’ interests.

Fairfax County is not the only police department in the midst of a leadership change. Arlington County and Prince George’s County are expected to name new chiefs of police this year. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser named Assistant Chief Robert Contee to succeed Peter Newsham.

‘Everybody took it personally’

Last summer, Newsham pushed back against the D.C. Council’s decision to enact police reforms by emergency legislation and to redirect expected funding away from the D.C. police budget.

“I think initially everybody took it personally, as an attack,” said a D.C. police officer said.

What felt like a gut punch from council members had some officers in the District reconsidering the risks they take, he said.

“I think now we’ve got ourselves in a position where the dangers as an officer are probably going to be a higher risk,” he said. “The new legislation, I think, that possibly encourages more officers to take a step back and not be as proactive.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said in error that Alexandria plans to replace its chief of police this year.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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