The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the establishment of an Office of Independent Police Auditor during its Sept. 20 meeting.
One of 202 recommendations given to the county by the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission created by Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova in 2015, the independent police auditor will be responsible for reviewing internal affairs investigations into use-of-force incidents involving Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) officers that resulted in serious injury or death, or that were the subject of a public complaint.
The auditor’s office can also look into police department policies and practices. For example, the auditor could investigate why a disproportionate number of incidents involve African American citizens, according to the FCPD’s annual use-of-force survey.
“I’m very pleased that the board supported the independent auditor,” Bulova said. “This program within the county will provide independent oversight when there is a police-involved incident. It provides assurance to the Board of Supervisors, but even more importantly, to the public, that there’s an independent, objective look at how things are being handled.”
The Board of Supervisors formed the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission on Mar. 3, 2015 in response to community concerns about transparency and law enforcement’s use of force following the 2013 shooting death of Springfield resident John Geer at the hands of an FCPD officer.
Adam Torres, the officer involved in that incident, was later fired and pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter in Fairfax Circuit Court on Apr. 18.
In addition to use-of-force practices, the ad hoc commission made recommendations concerning independent oversight, communications, recruitment and vetting, and mental health and crisis intervention team (CIT) training.
The commission delivered its final report to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 20, 2015.
Though the board’s approval of the independent auditor recommendation was largely expected, the process of getting the proposal from the ad hoc commission to the Board of Supervisors required extensive discussions and some revisions.
For example, the ad hoc commission suggested that the independent auditor have full access to the major crimes division and internal affairs bureau (IAB) files for a case under investigation.
The final recommendation brought before the Board of Supervisors said that the auditor can request a copy of the criminal investigation file through the chief of police upon the completion of a criminal case or an announcement that the Commonwealth’s Attorney has declined to prosecute. The auditor can monitor and review internal affairs investigations and have access to the bureau’s files from the beginning of any such investigation.
The recommendation ultimately approved by the Board of Supervisors eliminated an initial requirement of a term between two and five years for the auditor.
It also clarified that the auditor will review internal affairs bureau investigations, rather than participating in them, and that if the auditor finds deficiencies in a particular investigation, they recommend further investigation that will “absent good cause be conducted by IAB or other police department investigating authority.”
The commission’s original recommendation gave the auditor authority to conduct any such further investigation.
The other proposed revisions to the commission’s report regarding an independent auditor can be found in the Board of Supervisor’s Sept. 20 meeting agenda.
During the board’s discussion of the recommendation, Braddock District Supervisor John Cook, who chairs the board’s public safety committee, noted that the approved document can still be amended in the future, since it isn’t an ordinance or a land use case.
“We can change, amend, add as circumstances warrant,” Cook said.
Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity proposed an amendment to Cook’s motion to use reserve funding from the ad hoc commission to create two additional positions within the FCPD internal affairs bureau instead of waiting until Fiscal Year 2018 to supplement the department’s investigative work.
Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith seconded Herrity’s motion to consider an amendment, but it ultimately failed by a 2-8 vote, with Smith and Herrity recording the two affirmative votes.
The board passed Cook’s main motion by a unanimous vote.
When reached for comment, FCPD Second Lt. Brian Gaydos said through the department’s public affairs bureau that the Chief of Police’s Office “is not releasing any official opinion on the auditor’s office at this time.”
Now that the Office of Independent Police Auditor has been officially created, the Board of Supervisors will launch a job search for a person to fill the auditor position.
According to Bulova, the main position’s requirement is a familiarity with public safety and law enforcement that would give the auditor professional expertise in handling an investigation. However, the auditor can’t be a current or former employee of Fairfax County, ruling out anyone who has worked for the FCPD.
The job description initially required that applicants be attorneys and members of the Virginia State Bar, but that qualification was removed.
“We felt that putting that requirement in there could possibly eliminate qualified individuals,” Fairfax County NAACP president Shirley Ginwright said. “We don’t want to eliminate people based on criteria that have nothing to do with the job.”
In addition to leading Fairfax County’s branch of the NAACP, Ginwright serves as chair for the Fairfax County Communities of Trust Committee, a citizen group that works with the county and law enforcement to improve relations between police and the public.
The Board of Supervisors public safety committee will discuss the possibility of creating a civilian review panel that would work in conjunction with the Office of Independent Police Auditor at its next meeting, which is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on Oct. 25.
Like the independent auditor position, the civilian review panel was recommended by the ad hoc commission’s independent oversight and investigations subcommittee.
Ginwright says that, if the Board of Supervisors ultimately approves a civilian review panel, it should include black and Hispanic people in particular, since they enter the criminal justice system at rates disproportionate to their overall population size.
“It’s important that diversity is around the table and we do not have a panel [where] everybody on the panel looks alike,” Ginwright said. “We have that too much in committees and panels now, and I think that’s why we don’t get a lot of things done, because the voices that should be representing our minority communities aren’t there.”