Fairfax County Officials—So Transparent, You Can See Right Through Them

That Was Then

Barely a week seems to go by without a public statement being issued by officials in Fairfax County that includes some now-obligatory remark about transparency. They really seem to think that if they say the word enough, the public will actually be fooled into thinking that is the same as being transparent.  It’s a tactic that’s worked before, but residents have seen this particular dog and pony show too many times before.

Here’s the Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, trying to pull the wool over our eyes by saying this is a fairly new problem, going back only 2 years.

http://https://youtu.be/qwcYQFFrnEE?t=2h24m21s

This is a deliberate, blatant lie. Fairfax County’s secrecy and cover-up attempts are legendary, leading local reporters to dub the Fairfax County Police Department “the Secret Police.”

From WAMU:

“When I was a reporter covering the news in Fairfax County, we often referred to the Fairfax County Police Department as the KGB. They were the secret police,” says [Dave] Statter, a longtime reporter for WUSA.

In 2010, Michael Lee Pope wrote a series of damning articles about how law enforcement agencies in Northern Virginia, particularly in the Fairfax County Department, twist and abuse exemptions in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to shield their actions from scrutiny:

Fairfax County is the least transparent police department in Northern Virginia. Even defense attorneys in Fairfax complain that they have to get a court order to see police records that are routinely made available in the rest of Virginia. In contrast to Alexandria and Arlington, where prosecutors open their office to defense attorneys, the Fairfax commonwealth’s attorney’s office forces defendants to tie up court time and jump through bureaucratic hoops to get documents that are easily available elsewhere — even in Virginia.

In an editorial from earlier this year, Connection Newspapers Editor Mary Kimm states the problem even more plainly (emphasis mine):

Police-involved shootings have resulted in excruciating obfuscation and delay by Fairfax County Police dating back more than a decade. In this editorial, we refer to two high-profile cases, but these are not the only cases where police secrecy had caused incalculable pain to families while damaging the credibility of the police and other county officials.

It’s worth noting that the FCPD doesn’t just refuse to release information to reporters and the families of the people they kill. They also exempt themselves from reporting basic crime statistics to the state police and the FBI, as well. From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

It appears most police agencies in Virginia try to comply with voluntary federal and state reporting requirements that direct them to electronically transmit data on “justifiable homicides” involving their officers to state police, which collects all local crime data and forwards it to the FBI.

But the results have been mixed. And at least one police agency, Fairfax County police, has unilaterally stopped providing the data, saying they are not legally required to do so.

The agency said such homicides are not considered to be an “actual offense” and therefore are not required to be included in an agency’s crime-reporting numbers. None of the 13 justifiable homicides the department said involved its officers from 2007 through 2013 was reported to the state. Fairfax refused to provide numbers before 2007.

John Geer photo
According to Fairfax Police, shooting unarmed John Geer in the doorway of his own home was not a crime

 

This Is Now

So we now know that this lack of transparency goes back at least a decade. Perhaps things could have changed recently. Not according to this Watchdog.org article by Robert Pursell from March. He details his experience trying to get information about the 11 fatal shootings Fairfax police officers have been involved in between 2007-20012:

Within ten days I received a letter from the Fairfax County Police Department. Eager to get my hands on some substantive information, I ripped open the letter to find…absolutely nothing. Enclosed was a listing of 11 dates. Along with those 11 dates, was a case number accompanied by a two-word description that read “police shooting.”

It didn’t list any of the suspects. It didn’t give any descriptions of the events. It simply showed the 11 dates, the town in which the shootings occurred, the name of the officer who investigated each incident, random numeric case numbers, and the reported event of “police shooting.”

Dumbfounded, I called Lt. White… He informed me that, as much as he wished he could release incident reports to me, that information could only be made available if I had a subpoena for it, and referred me to Section 2.2-3706(A)(2)(a) of the Code of Virginia, the bylaw listed in the body of my letter as the reason why the Fairfax County Police Department didn’t have to fulfill my request.

Barrie Masters’ luck hasn’t been any better in the 6 years he has been trying to pry details from the FCPD about the 2009 shooting death of his son, David Masters, at the hands of one of their officers.  Masters was shot in the back and killed when a Fairfax police officer mistakenly assumed the unarmed man reached for a gun during a traffic stop. The dashcam footage of the incident was finally released in May after the department was criticized at a public meeting for its continued secrecy in the case.

David Masters crash scene
David Masters’ vehicle crashed into another car after he was shot.

In a statement accompanying the video, Fairfax Police Chief provided his rationale for releasing the previously withheld footage:  “In reaching my decision to release the in-car video, I considered the following factors:  the local criminal investigation has been completed; the U.S. Department of Justice criminal investigation has been completed; and there is no pending or threatened civil litigation.”

Yet when Barrie Masters submitted another FOIA request asking for records related to his son’s death, Roessler again denied the request, stating that the investigation could be re-opened at any time, and again citing the same tired exemption police accountability activists have come to know and hate.

And the Path Forward is Really Just a Circle Back to Where We Started

The Communications Subcommittee of the Fairfax County Ad Hoc Commission to Review Police Practices and Policies recently released a scathing report calling for immediate changes in how the county releases information about officer-involved shootings:

If the Board of Supervisors expects to get out from under the negative perception hindering the good work of the men and women in FCPD, there must be significant change coming from the leadership of the County and the Fairfax County Police Department. No longer can they just pay lip service to the idea of transparency. Real change is needed – now.

The Board of Supervisors must insist on policies that lean toward releasing information as soon as possible whether it’s in the department’s daily communications, during a significant event or through a Freedom of Information Act request. There are now examples across the country of large, metropolitan area police departments operating in this manner, making those agencies both more efficient and more effective in serving their communities.  It is well past time for the Fairfax County Police Department to start providing timely, honest and effective communications with everything it does. We deserve nothing less.

The subcommittee stressed during its presentation of its recommendations (video below) that the failure to release information does not actually stem from Virginia’s FOIA law itself, but from the culture in county government that encourages agencies to reflexively refuse to release information whenever an exemption allows them to.  In other words, agencies have the freedom to release information where an exemption might apply. They choose not to.

Contrast this to the response the County Attorney’s office gave to the subcommittee when they discussed the blanket FOIA rejections issued by county agencies:

“Longtime deputy county attorney Peter D. Andreoli Jr. advised Fitzgerald’s committee that if they wanted to change that approach, they should go to Richmond and change the law.”

This is the same office that was revealed to have deliberately impeded the investigation into the shooting death of John Geer for more than a year. The same office that paid an outside attorney more than $225,000 to write two pooh-poohing responses to Senator Charles Grassley’s (R-Iowa) inquiries about stonewalling in the case.

The same office that claimed it was restructuring to be more responsive and accountable by terminating one attorney and having the person in charge of the office, David Bobzien, retire in a few years. Bobzien has been a practicing attorney for roughly 40 years. Announcing his retirement does not signal any censure or commitment to change on the county’s part. It merely signals that there is an exit plan that doesn’t involve prying the key to his office from his cold dead hands when Bobzien finally dies at work. As for the scapegoat deputy attorney who was supposed to get terminated? Of course, that didn’t happen.

On the other hand, FCPD Chief Roessler’s reaction to the communications report suggested that the department might be adopting a new approach to releasing information:

“The message I get from that report is, ‘Chief, you need to do better,’ and I am trying,” says Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler, who sat down with WAMU to talk about the report and his reaction to its recommendations. “You need more access to me, to this agency and we need to provide more information through social media as they unfold.”

How might that look? It looks a lot like the same ole, same ole. The same article continues:

“Roessler says he will not be releasing the report his department conducted on the death of a woman who died after being hit with a Taser stun gun several times while she was handcuffed. He would also not commit to releasing dashboard video footage or body camera footage of officer-involved shootings. He also wouldn’t commit to releasing the names of his employees who are involved in officer-involved shootings within a week.”

Well, what is the mealy-mouthed, do-nothing, say-nothing Board of Supervisors doing? You know, the ones that can actually order the police department to adopt the recommendations from the communications report? As usual, not a damn thing.  They had one of their regularly scheduled meetings the week after the communications report was released, but it wasn’t on their agenda and didn’t come up for discussion at all.  They did, however, approve seeking more grants from the Federal government so the police department could get more equipment and hire more officers.

 

This is the final post in the Why We Protest series.

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  • Pw4x3r

    No more money for pieces of shit who have no real desire to help the world. In fact, the entire department should be dismantled. Ideally, the people in charge would be sentenced to be hung in the street for all to see what happens when you get treated the way you treat others.

  • JC

    Another bullshit article. You use information that is 5 years old. You must have been searching the net for stories you can manipulate and only found outdated articles.

  • t

    Mcflies:
    Wow. Welcome to the new age.

    My guess is that as technology evolves and no law suits get filed…you’ll see less and less video being released by PDs.

    Now some agencies have opted to just put everything on line for all
    IMO that’s a crapmalsandwhich waiting to be eaten.
    There are so many privacy issues being ignored by those PDs that are trying to be forward thinking…that they miss it.
    Maybe I’m wrong…but I seldom am

    From the article…the cars that are done…info released.
    But the PD is right NOT to release anything before the investigation AND all court matters are completed.

    Are some PDs 2-faced about if? Sure. They release what they want sometimes….and inthinknthats wrong.

    I’d guess you’ll see FIOA change as the tech evolves

  • S. Martin

    Isn’t it great, 6 people showed up to your last protest. At least two of you don’t even live or work in Fairfax County. However, you have a problem with the way Fairfax County Police are doing their jobs in one of the safest counties in the country. Amazing!!!

  • Lorelei McFly

    You sure have been making the rounds defending your hometown thugs!

    It was more like 20. We also had passerby pick up signs and joins us once they heard what we were there for. 20 is still not a huge number, but that’s 20 more protesters than there were when FCPD killed Sal Culosi in 2006 and David Masters in 2009. How many do you think will be there if Adam Torres isn’t indicted this month for killing John Geer in cold blood, or the next time your beloved thugs with badges gun someone down without cause? At any rate, it will be more than enough to piss off a shitheel like you. How angry you must be about the ad hoc commission meeting every month to air the FCPD’s filthy laundry!

    By the way, most of us live in Fairfax County, but you shouldn’t be surprised that people from surrounding areas would show up. FCPD is so infamous that they’ve been running stories about them on CNN and even in Canadian and British newspapers. What a blight on the county!

    Yes, your coward FCPD cops work in one of the safest counties in country, but run around like terrified sissies in their body amour, pointing guns at unarmed citizens and killing them out of paranoid hallucinations of people reaching for phantom guns. It’s also hilarious that you think they are the reason for the low crime rate, what with that 38.95% case closure rate. Go right to page 33 to see what a great job your boys are doing: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/police/crime/statistics/2013/20132014groupaibroffensesstatisticalreport.pdf

  • S. Martin

    Thank you McFly, when someone points out facts and discusses their own views you simply turn to name calling and promoting more lies. The fact that less than a handful have been killed by police Fairfax Police in their 75 years of existence could be pretty outstanding if taking in the right light. They are after all human beings doing a very difficult job. Of course, I doubt you would know that. It seems all your information may come from media sources. However, and with that said any death is tragic. This is particularly so if there was wrong doing involved. If there was criminal intent then it should be answered for I couldnt agree more on that aspect.

    The ad hoc commission will be what it is, but I bet what it shows if taken in its entirety, is that by and far the Fairfax County Police Department is one the best in the country. When things are reported on please be sure to take them in their entirety. You shouldn’t look for information that simply fits your agenda or what spin the media puts on things, rather you should do your own research and become informed. That may involve reviewing and considering information that disputes what you want to believe. Your inability to debate the issue here or in other places without resorting to name calling and derogatory attacks is not appreciate, and you refer to the police as thugs!

  • Lorelei McFly

    Please, you expect your views to be meet with care and respect? You seem so receptive towards people expresses their views through protest. Your claim of being interested in having a debate is entirely disingenuous, transparently so.

    You claim that I lied in my comments and articles when I have provided references for every single thing I have written about. You claim you presented facts? What facts? That Fairfax is one of the safest counties? I didn’t dispute that or claim otherwise. I disputed your unwarranted hero worship of FCPD being able to claim responsibility for that since the crime closure rate reported in their own report is a mere 38%. Did I lie about them running around like terrified sissies with all their body armor on? Have you seen cops in Fairfax County in the past decade or so? Do I need to go take a photo of one so you can see all the gear they are wearing even though “Fairfax is one of the safest counties in the country?”

    “However, and with that said any death is tragic. This is particularly so if there was wrong doing involved. If there was criminal intent then it should be answered for I couldn’t agree more on that aspect.”

    Really? Then why are you even here arguing (and elsewhere)? How many wrongful death settlements do you need? How many exposed cover ups do you need? If Adam Torres is indicted for the criminal act of intentionally killing John Geer without cause, will that finally be enough for you, or will you say he should get off because “he was doing a difficult job?” Lots of people have difficult jobs where they have to make split-second decisions. Somehow law enforcement is the only profession where that’s reason enough to kill unarmed people who are not a threat. And yes, police officers who do that ARE thugs. Criminal thugs.

    I have done my own research. I have submitted FOIA requests, attended the ad hoc meetings, read reports from the FCPD and the Board of Supervisors. It’s still very…interesting that you would write, “they are after all human beings doing a very difficult job. Of course, I doubt you would know that. It seems all your information may come from media sources.”

    Do you somehow have inside knowledge of how difficult their job is and access to information other than media sources? Because if you do, that implies you are either a cop, a cop’s family member, or someone else working in Fairfax government to hide FCPD’s many nasty messes from the public.

    I did call you a shitheel. That is my honest assessment of what you are. Hypocrite and bullshitter are two others. Professional or volunteer cop shill may be also apply based on this last response from you, since you decry my reliance on published media reports. Whatever you are, your view is that the police are always right and above criticism, and you actively condone and support the CRIMES committed by Fairfax police. People like you are the embodiment of the banality of evil. For that you are not due any respect from me and you shall get none.

  • S. Martin

    Thanks for proving my point. Your continued desire to lump all FCPD officers into one group based on the actions of a very few number shows just how biased you truly are. With that in mind I will discountinue any further responses to your rhetoric, as you seem unopen to discuss the issues in a civil manner. While I could provide answers to most of what you posted it simply seems unproductive to do so. God Bless!

  • Lorelei McFly

    You didn’t give any answers because you don’t have any. Pick up some Tucks for all that butt hurt on your way out!

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