Opinion: Commentary: Capstone to Four Years of Police Reform

Just in time for the Oct. 8 fourth anniversary of the 2015 release of the Fairfax County Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission Final Report, the Board of Supervisors approved full implementation of body worn cameras (BWC) by the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD). This is one of the Commission’s most significant and consequential recommendations. While a potential aid to criminal prosecution, the body worn camera’s equally important contribution is to foster greater transparency and accountability of all parties during the interactions of the police with the public. Full implementation will begin in May 2020 and take three years to phase in countywide.

The Board’s decision followed the completion of a 2018 pilot study chartered by Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. and conducted by the American University, which found that there was “… overwhelming support among community members for the widespread adoption of body worn cameras….” and “…consensus among the officers involved in the pilot that body worn cameras will increase the gathering of evidence and help settle complaints against officers.”

The Board’s decision is a fitting capstone to a four-year successful effort by the Board to oversee the transformation of the Police Department from one that was excellent to now being on a clear path to becoming “best in class.”

The Commission’s formation by the Board of Supervisors followed a few high-profile police use of force incidents, with the ultimate catalyst being the August 2013 shooting death of unarmed Springfield resident John Geer in his doorway.

Board Chair Bulova formed the Ad Hoc Commission and her office closely oversaw the Commission’s work over an intensive five-month period in 2015. Charged with “…assessing the (Fairfax County) Police Department’s performance against national best practices,” the Commission made more than 200 recommendations for strengthening the public’s trust and confidence in the Department.

Public Safety Committee Chair Supervisor John Cook combined forces with Board Chair Bulova and Chief Roessler to drive the Board and Police Department to embrace the Ad Hoc Commission’s recommendations. As they complete their many years of service to our community, Bulova’s and Cook’s police-reform efforts will certainly be a key legacy.

The significant reforms for which all can be proud will increase police accountability, divert those who suffer from mental illness into treatment rather than incarceration, reduce use-of-force injuries and deaths, open public access to incident information, and engender public confidence.

Body worn cameras will now complement the dashboard cameras mounted in each FCPD patrol vehicle. The Department’s policy enshrines sanctity of human life as an organizing principle, with de-escalation as the strategy of first resort when confronted with a threat rather than the use of force. Constraints and strengthened supervisory oversight are now in place on police use of vehicle pursuit. “Diversion First” offers alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness or developmental disabilities.

An Independent Police Auditor (IPA) automatically reviews investigations of death or serious injury cases as well as uses of force when a citizen complaint is filed. A Civilian Review Panel reviews investigations of civilian complaints regarding “abuse of authority” or “serious misconduct” by an FCPD officer and holds public forums to hear from the community. Policies regarding release of information provide for increased public visibility into the Department’s daily activities and performance, with a predisposition to disclose information, regardless of incident controversy. Intense efforts are underway to recruit talented personnel that better reflect Fairfax County’s population diversity.

Sustained effort and energy are still required to move decades-old engrained practices into a “new normal.” Further, those who are “best-in-class” constantly seek to improve.

Tough questions still need to be asked as the County implements body worn cameras. Should an agency other than the Department, for example, control access to the massive amount of data to be collected? Should the IPA or an independent third party audit the program? Heightened expectations alone should give our policymakers pause, particularly when we know that no technology deployment is mistake and error free. Not collecting video data during a controversial use of force incident is bad, missing video data under the Department’s control is worse.

As to the revised vehicular pursuit and stopping policies, it will be important for the FCPD to provide a detailed report to the Board and the public in early 2020 as to the effects of the revised policies, details of 2019 pursuits and vehicle stops, and whether any further changes are needed. It will also be important for the Board to monitor and take any appropriate action with respect to the racial disparity study underway by the Independent Police Auditor.

On this fourth anniversary of the Ad Hoc Commission Report, Fairfax County and its Police Department have achieved many reforms of which to be proud. The temptation will be to declare the mission accomplished. This would be a mistake. The new Board of Supervisors come January must provide vigilant monitoring through performance expectations and progress reports. Not because enough has not been accomplished, though more improvements are needed, but because that’s the norm for best-in-class police departments.

Niedzielski-Eichner and Steel were chair and vice-chair of the Ad Hoc Commission’s Use of Force Subcommittee and spent many hours with a small, loosely configured group of former Commission members dedicated to implementing Commission recommendations, working with FCPD leadership. Steel oversaw as chair the formation of the Civilian Review Panel.

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