Fairfax County Implementing Police Reforms Much Quicker Than Reported; Said Critical Op. Ed. That I Co-Authored Was Inaccurate & Unfair


Fairfax Supervisors Holiday Photo with Police Officers

Fairfax Supervisors’ Holiday Photo with Police Officers, reindeer and snow figure.(Photo by John Lovaas)

(12-16-16) Fairfax County officials this week announced they are implementing recommendations to restore public confidence in our police department at a much faster pace than previously reported.

In an Op Ed published in The Washington Post earlier this month, John Lovaas and I criticized the Board of Supervisors, which governs the county, for not implementing 202 recommendations suggested last year by an Ad Hoc Police Review Commission after the fatal shooting of an unarmed man by police during a 2013 domestic disturbance. The police officer was later fired and pleaded guilty to manslaughter but only after 17 months of stonewalling by the police and county.

John and I served on that 35 member Ad Hoc commission and we felt the board was dragging its feet based on its own published progress reports. In our Post opinion column, we reported the county had acknowledged approving only 20 recommendations, according to its own website. We further noted it had rejected 4 and had listed the remaining 178 either as being “under review” or “in progress.”

To us that was unacceptable.

Our criticism drew an instant response from Chairman Sharon Bulova, who appointed the commission, and Supervisor John Cook, who is overseeing implementation of the recommendations, along with others on the ten person board who said our critique was both inaccurate and unfair.

After our article was published, Deputy County Executive David M. Rohrer and Chief of Police Edwin C. Roessler announced during a public meeting on Tuesday (12-13) that 119 of the 202 recommendations — more than half — already have been implemented, or fully implemented with modifications by the Supervisors, in the past twelve months.

That’s significantly more than the 20 we cited.

According to their written report, Executive Rohrer and Chief Roessler further defined the term “in progress,” explaining that it meant a recommendation accepted and in the implementation process.

Based on that definition, they wrote that 178 of the 202 recommendations “are in a positive status –  88.1%.” 

The term under review” was defined as a “recommendation (that) needs more review and consideration, or discussion, by the appropriate approval authority before potential implementation can begin.” Those accounted for only 15 of the 202 recommendations. Only 9 recommendations have been rejected.

In a private meeting with Chairman Bulova and Supervisor Cook, I was told the numbers we cited from the county’s official website were old. Some had not been updated in five months. 

Obviously, if John and I had access to the newest numbers, we would have reported them and taken a much less critical view of the board’s progress.  For that, I apologize, especially because Chairman Bulova and Supervisor Cook have been strong allies in pushing much needed mental health reforms and I personally appreciate their support and respect both of them greatly.

In reading the board’s updated and much more thorough description of its progress, I noticed actions that are, indeed, very encouraging, and a few that still need to be sped-up.

I was not surprised that one of the 9 recommendations that was not implemented was a recommendation to “replace all use of the term ‘excited delirium’ with a more medically and physiologically descriptive term.” The term ‘excited delirium’ was the highly scientifically questionable excuse that the Commonwealth Attorney used to explain the death of Natasha McKenna after the 37 year-old mentally ill mother was repeatedly stunned with a taser while being extracted from a Fairfax County jail cell. As I’ve written before, that weak-kneed rationale basically blamed McKenna for her own death, absolving the county of culpability.

On the plus side, after McKenna’s death in 2015, Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, joined with Chairman Bulova and Supervisor Cook in implementing a Diversion First program in January 2016 to divert individuals with mental illnesses charged with minor offenses into treatment rather than booking them into jail. It has been one of the most successful programs recommended by the Ad Hoc Commission.

During the first six months of Diversion First, Fairfax law enforcement reported diverting 208 individuals with mental health problems into treatment. Under Chief Roessler the county also adopted the Memphis model of Crisis Intervention Team training. Its 40 hour course is the nation’s “gold standard.” Meanwhile, between January and June, 201 Sheriff’s deputies, 71 fire and rescue officers, and 23 juvenile intake officers completed Mental Health First Aid training. One hundred precent of court magistrates also completed Mental Health First Aid classes. Chairman Bulova and Supervisor Cook also earmarked $3.89 million from the county budget specifically for implementing Diversion First, which enabled the county to beef-up its staff at its recently opened Merrifield Crisis Response Center (drop off/triage center).

According to the Ad Hoc Commission’s final report, “The average annual cost of incarcerating an individual in the County jail is estimated to be approximately $50,000. By comparison, the subcommittee learned that the average cost for the Community Service Board to serve someone in an intensive case management program is approximately $7,500 per year.”

Another important recommendation that has been implemented by the board “prohibit(s) the use of (Tasers) on a handcuffed, or otherwise restrained individual, who is actively resisting, unless an objectively reasonable officer concludes that the resistance could result in serious injury to him or herself or others and less severe force alternatives have been ineffective or are deemed unacceptable for the situation.” While that gives an office discretion, it confirms the Ad Hoc Commission’s intent that someone who is restrained should not be stunned.  

Two recommendations that still are awaiting implementation are the creation of a mental health docket as part of Diversion First and the hiring of two independent criminal investigators by the Commonwealth Attorney to assist in investigations of police use of force. The county said it is in negotiations with the Commonwealth Attorney and courts about the feasibility of implementing those recommendations.

In our Op Ed, John and I wrote that the Commission’s recommendation about having police being issued body cameras was “stuck in limbo.” In a letter to the board taking our editorial to task, Ad Hoc Commission Member Adrian Steel wrote that “the Board is working on a pilot program and plans to address the use of body worn cameras in a Public Safety Committee meeting in early 2017.”  Commission member Steel is helping shepherd the recommendations through the board process and while John and I were happy to read his upbeat take, we also noted that Police Chief Roessler was advised during Tuesday’s public safety meeting that funds for a body camera pilot might not be readily available given the country’s tight budget situation.

In addition to financial concerns, there are also technical issues about body cameras that remain to be resolved. 

During my meeting with Supervisor Cook, he explained why the county is being cautious about hurrying to issue body cameras. As the parent of an adult with a mental illness, how would I feel if the police entered my home and took video of my son or daughter psychotic knowing that footage from body cameras could be obtained by my neighbors via a Freedom of Information Act Request and posted on the Internet? he asked.

Given that other major police departments using body cameras have worked through technical and privacy issues, the board should be able to overcome such hurdles once and if it decides to commit funds.

Importantly, the two most controversial recommendations by the Ad Hoc Commission have been approved with notable modifications by the Board. It has voted to hire an independent Police Auditor and to create a Citizens Review Panel to monitor police actions and assure the public that there will not be a repeat of the lack of transparency which happened during an investigation into the fatal shooting of John Geer, which caused public outrage and mistrust in having the police investigate their own. 

Chairman Bulova told me that she intends to move quickly to appoint the nine members of the Citizen Review Board, one of whom must have a background in law enforcement. She is seeking nominations before January 31, 2017 and is hoping for the Board to approve the nine members as soon as February 14th.

Given that the Ad Hoc Commission was told that the Fairfax Police receive as many as 500 calls per month related to mental health issues and national studies show that individuals with mental illness are  16 times more likely to be fatally shot by police, I have urged Chairman Bulova to consider that at least one of the nine citizens on the review board have some knowledge of mental illness.

Our intent in writing our Op. Ed was to urge the board to move as quickly as possible to implement the Ad Hoc Commission’s recommendations and John and I are gratified, based on the updated figures made public this week, that the board is continuing to make progress.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.