Courageous Fairfax Police Chief To Retire. Strong Advocate For Individuals With Mental Illnesses, Including His Own Officers

Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., retiring. WTOP photo

Chief Roessler Was Among First To Openly Discuss Police Suicides. Also Courageously Condemned Officer Who Used Taser Unprovoked On Delusional Man In Crisis

(11-6-20) Fairfax County (VA) is losing a strong and unwavering advocate for individuals with mental illnesses.

Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. announced this week that he will retire in February after eight years as chief, bringing a close to a nearly 30 years career in law enforcement.

In addition to pushing for Crisis Intervention Team training inside his 1,402 member department, Chief Roessler demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that individuals with mental illnesses be treated decently when he publicly condemned the actions of one of his own officers in June.

Chief Roessler said he was “disgusted” after an officer marched up to an adult male with a history of mental illness and shot him with a taser without provocation before pinning him to the ground. The man had been speaking nonsense and walking in circles in the street. The officer was criminally charged with assault.

Shamefully, but predictably, the Fairfax Fraternal Order of Police expressed outrage and demanded Chief Roessler resign rather than recognizing that one of their own could have better handled the call. That grumbling continues today.

The incident attracted national attention, in part, because the officer was white and the victim was black. In Fairfax County, use of force by police disproportionately affects Black people: 2019 data show that Black residents make up less than 10% of the county’s population, but are involved in 45.6% of police use-of-force incidents.

Chief Roessler’s courage in publicly condemning his officer’s use of force reflected the chief’s long-held concern about how individuals with mental illnesses are viewed and treated. That concern applied to those within police ranks as well as the citizens the police had sworn to protect. Under his direction, the police department produced a video called “Consequences of the Badge” that featured interviews with Fairfax County officers who either had contemplated suicide or had lost a fellow officer or loved one because of a suicide. Chief Roessler was among the first to break the code of silence about police suicides by speaking nationally about suicide by officers. In 2019, 228 American police officers died by suicide. A previous study in 2017, found more died from suicide than were killed in the line of duty.

During his tenure, Chief Roessler oversaw the creation of an independent auditor for complaints against his departmentlimited cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, changed use of force policies, and launched the rollout of a body worn camera program. I often spoke  to the Chief, whose wife, Gina, is a well-known local mental health advocate, and always found him interested in doing whatever he could to improve how his officers dealt with those in a mental health crisis. After hours, I bumped into him at mental health group events, such as This Is My Brave performances.

The chief attending a This Is My Brave show. Shown with Jeanne Comeau, NAMI Northern Virginia’s Executive Director, and This Is My Brave co-founder Jennifer Marshall

Ironically, Chief Roessler was assaulted recently by a man with mental illnesses brandishing a knife. That July assault happened when an armed man burst into a bible class that the chief and Gina, were attending and attacked a minister. A fellow church member, who hurried to defend the pastor, and the minister both were stabbed. They were hospitalized with serious injuries. Chief Roessler was bitten several times on his arms while helping disarm the assailant but not seriously injured.

The chief was not the first in local law enforcement assaulted during a mental health crisis. In May 2006, Detective Vicky Armel and Officer Mike “Gabby” Garbarino were fatally shot by a young man with a serious mental illness. I wrote in the Washington Post about how Vicky Armel took up for my son Kevin during his mental health crisis when the mental health system had let him down. Such incidents are painful reminders that police officers often must deal with individuals in crisis, many of whom, failed to receive adequate treatment in their communities that possibly could have prevented attacks.

The Chief’s retirement will be a sad day for those with mental illnesses and those who love them. Thankfully, he established worthwhile programs and set standards that hopefully will continue after he leaves.

Thank you Chief for a job well done.

Chief Roessler was among the first chiefs to speak out about police deaths by suicide.

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.