by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director
This month is bookended by reminders of police abuse. Last Sunday marked one year since a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and August 29 will mark the two-year anniversary of a police shooting that occurred much closer to home – the shooting of John Geer by a Fairfax County police officer. In both cases, the men were unarmed. And, in both cases law enforcement and elected officials responded with an official wall of silence.
In our society, we too often wait to consider and make needed reforms until after a horrible event triggers a public outcry. Ferguson and Fairfax County are sad examples of this reform model. As we wrote earlier this week, the police abuses in Ferguson triggered some positive reforms, including new restrictions placed on the transfer of military equipment from the federal government to state and local law enforcement. These were reforms for which we’d advocated previously, but which failed to gain traction until Ferguson made them impossible to ignore. Fairfax County is also a place where advocates have long sought police reforms. But, it took the inaction by the Fairfax County Policy Department (FCPD) in the wake of Mr. Greer’s death and federal concerns about how the investigation was handled for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to establish a commission to review the FCPD’s policies and practices and recommend changes to ensure a culture of public trust between the FCPD and the community. The high bar set to trigger reform opportunities makes it even more important that we push the commission to recommend real reforms now!
The establishment of the police review commission in Fairfax, referred to officially as the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, is an important step in restoring civilian authority and oversight over policing in the County, a step that is also essential to restoring public trust in the FCPD. The commission is made up of a diverse group of stakeholders, including community advocates, law enforcement, and academics and will offer its recommendations to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors this fall. The substance of these recommendations is still undecided. It’s up to us to ensure that they are rooted in the concepts and values of accountability, transparency, constitutional policing and respect for the sanctity of human life – otherwise we risk recommendations that merely rubber stamp the policies and practices that led us here in the first place.
We can all make our voice heard in this process. You can check the Police Commission meeting schedule or the committee and subcommittee webpage to see when and where the commission and its subcommittees will meet and whether the agenda will include a public comment period where you can add your voice. The community’s input matters – your voice can make a difference.
Not sure what to say? Here is what we’re asking the commission to recommend. Our recommendations are based on the belief that law enforcement officers are guardians of the Constitution.
These recommendations include:
- Understanding Policing in a Democratic Society – Law enforcement are the guardians of the U.S. Constitution, thus the FCPD should initiate department-wide training to ensure its personnel understand the mission and role of police in protecting constitutional rights and the sanctity of human life, prioritizing de-escalation, and ensuring a duty to intervene if another officer uses excessive force.
- Emphasizing Mental Health Training – Embracing the sanctity of human life requires law enforcement to differentiate between a person who needs mental health care and a criminal offender who poses a serious threat. Training FCPD officers to distinguish between criminal offenders and individuals in need of mental health services will also better ensure that the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center does not also serve as a mental health facility.
- Establishing a Civilian Review Board – The establishment of a civilian review board with investigatory and discipline authority can be an effective tool for enhancing trust between the FCPD and Fairfax residents. It does so by making the FCPD more transparent and accountable to the people.
- Funding and Mandating Police Body Worn Cameras – If, and only if, proper policies and procedures are in place for their use, body cams can be a win-win. They can both protect the public from police misconduct and protect the police from false allegations of abuse.
- Ending the War on Drugs – Drug use is a public health issue, and the Commonwealth, the County Board, and FCPD should implement policies and procedures to deal with it as such. Drug policies must be evidence-based and incorporate prevention, treatment, and public safety elements. The end of the war on drugs should begin with a policing policy that deprioritizes enforcement of marijuana possession and includes County Board advocacy for decriminalization of possession by the Commonwealth.
- Mandating Data Collection – To ensure that the FCPD is not engaged in racially biased policing, the County Board should adopt a policy requiring the FCPD to collect, analyze, and publish an annual statistical report covering all FCPD stops, frisks, citations, arrests, and use-of-force incidents.
- Restricting the Use of SWAT – The County Board should adopt a policy limiting use of SWAT to scenarios in which there is a likelihood that the situation for which the FCPD deploys a SWAT team presents an imminent threat to the lives of civilians and/or police personnel.
- Reforming Civil Asset Forfeiture – Policing should be based on public safety, not supplementing the FCPD’s budget. The County Board should determine as a matter of policy that the FCPD should use asset forfeiture only when: 1) a person has been found guilty of a crime; 2) the convicted person is the owner of the property; and 3) the government has proved by clear and convincing evidence that the owner/offender either used the property in the commission of the crime or received the property as a result of the crime.
- Enhancing Existing Policies, Practices, and Laws Regarding Police-involved Incidents – Law enforcement should focus on de-escalation techniques and ensure that any use of force tool used is the least severe for the situation at hand, including recognition that some less-lethal force options are less severe than others are.
While there is no silver bullet to ensuring a safe and effective police force, with restoration of effective civilian oversight the recommendations we have made will help restore public trust by making the FCPD a model for what policing in a democratic society should look like.
Together we can help ensure that necessary reforms do not wait for another tragic event to take place. Join us in urging their adoption.
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