On May 28, 2015, Robert Gonzalez attempted to exercise his first amendment rights by filming his interaction with Officer J.R. Vesper of the Fairfax County Police Department. As you can see in the video, Vesper grabs the camera as soon as Gonzalez starts filming.
Much ado has been made over the past 7 months about efforts to reform the Fairfax County Police Department in the wake of their extended stonewalling in the John Geer case. Does this look like the actions of a police department that has embraced accountability and transparency? Northern Virginia Cop Block founder, Mike Curtis, shared the video with an FCPD Public Information Officer via email and asked for an official response:
As we spoke at the ad hoc commission I need some information on the enclosed video. What I see here is assault and a violation of this man’s first amendment rights. I take this matter very seriously and hope you will be forwarding this to his commanding officer for review. At this time I am asking you to provide me the officer’s notes or other statements regarding what led him to act in this way. I would like a public response from the department on their policy of allowing citizens to record officers in the execution of their duties and what situation would it be appropriate for an officer to shut off a recording device. Furthermore what is the policy for officers that physically assault citizens exercising their right to record? I would ask you also, in what situation would it be appropriate for the man in this video to reach through the window and put his hands on the officer? Finally are there audio or video recordings of this interaction in the department’s possession? If this department intends in good faith, as Chief Roessler stated last night, to increase transparency then this officer is acting in clear opposition to leadership.
Officer name: J Vesper
Victims name: Robert Gonzalez
Date of incident: on or around June 29th 2015
I appreciate your prompt response as once again, given the nature of the problems of transparency in the Fairfax County PD we will make every attempt to bring this matter to light if there is not swift action made to make right the actions of this officer taken against Mr. Gonzalez.
Response from Lucy Caldwell, Fairfax County Police Department Public Information Officer
The public is not prohibited from taping police personnel or encounters.
In reviewing the short piece of tape, with no preceding context provided, it appears that from the audio, the person in the car may have been under suspicion of illegal drug activity and was being directed to step out of his car, but, without more information, we won’t speculate on what took place.
Do you know if charges took place and/or when a court date is scheduled? Possibly Mr. Gonzalez could provide that for you?
As you request, we can share this tape with the Officer’s supervisor to formally investigate the matter. Just to clarify; are you requesting a formal internal affairs investigation be initiated?
I think that initiating physical contact before giving a lawful order is definitely grounds for a formal investigation. Especially when the action taken by the officer was to interfere with someone’s right to record. He was allegedly issued a ticket for less than a gram of marijuana. He was not arrested but he was detained and cuffed.
I spoke to the supervisor and learned more about this incident.
I can tell you that Robert Martinez was stopped for an HOV violation on May 28 around 5:30 p.m. at the I/66-Rte. 7 ramp. Upon making the stop, the officer suspected (smelled it/saw it) marijuana was in the vehicle and asked the driver to step out of the car. Upon further investigation, marijuana was found and the man was charged with possession and HOV violation. He was convicted on both charges in court yesterday (July 28).
As far as filming, it is NOT illegal to film our officers; the supervisor has seen the clip and has discussed the matter with the officer.
Presently, the agency has not received any formal complaints on this matter from Mr. Martinez.
What’s seen on the video is a clear assault on Mr. Martinez’s civil liberties, yet FCPD officials try to deflect attention away from this act of police misconduct by saying the interaction is too brief (because their officer shut off the phone) and that we don’t know what happened before. With police officers there is either not enough evidence or it somehow doesn’t show us what happened. Rest assured, though, this 18-second clip would be pretty long enough to send us little people to jail.
It is also nice that Officer Vesper’s supervisor had a nice chat with him. I imagine it probably looked a lot like this:
As we saw with the case of Alex Horton, the Iraq veteran who was mistakenly raided this past summer, the Fairfax County Police Department is not receptive to formal complaints. After months of trying to get resolution on his case, Horton said of the experience, FCPD “has revealed a culture violently terrified of reform and lessons learned.” Couple that with the fact that Mr. Gonzalez already had charges hanging over his head, it’s not surprising that he might not file a formal complaint.
That’s kinda beside the point, though, isn’t it? If you have video evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of your officers, why would you not proactively initiate an internal affairs investigation? Especially considering the level of international scrutiny the department has been under for its misdeeds. I will tell you why not; Fairfax County does not care about transparency, accountability, or reforming itself.
We held onto this video pending Gonzalez’s appeal of his conviction. The case has been dropped by Fairfax County.