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Police review panel adds process to weed out unfounded complaints

Police leave the Fairfax County Courthouse (file photo by David Taube)

Fairfax County’s Police Civilian Review Panel has implemented a screening process to better assess whether complaints have merit.

The panel, which reviews complaints of misconduct by the Fairfax County Police Department, uses the process to determine if a request should be reviewed by the entire panel, thereby expediting its other cases.

“I don’t mean to disparage anyone who brings complaints, but sometimes they are simply unfounded, and it is not necessary for the entire panel to devote our resources to viewing a complaint,” panel member Jimmy Bierman said during the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ May 17 public safety committee meeting.

The panel formally introduced the reform in September, creating a subcommittee of three members to determine whether allegations rise to the level of serious misconduct or abuse of authority, according to an annual report published Feb. 28.

A four-year review from the panel released in 2021 recommended that a “summary judgment”-like process be codified in its bylaws by the Board of Supervisors. The panel has been using subcommittees since 2019 to help handle growing number of complaints, the annual report said.

The process led to the dismissal of a complaint related to an alleged shoplifting at a since-closed Office Depot in Merrifield. The incident happened in May 2020 at 2901 Gallows Road, according to the panel.

According to Bierman, a female shoplifter hid in the Office Depot, tried to shoplift after it closed and later called 911 for help to get out when she couldn’t leave through the front door.

The subcommittee spared the panel from reviewing the complaint against police, who asked her to show a receipt, Bierman said.

However, the decision to dismiss the complaint wasn’t unanimous, as former panel member Hansel Aguilar argued that the full panel should have reviewed it. Aguilar is now the first executive director for Charlottesville’s police civilian oversight board.

The added subcommittee is just one of the changes that Fairfax County’s civilian review panel has made in recent months, including the addition of an executive director in February.

Overall, the panel received 28 complaints against the FCPD in 2021, including 14 initial complaints and 14 requests for a review of an investigation. Two initial complaints and 11 review requests were rejected, and reviews were ongoing for eight cases, as of Dec. 31.

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