Report urges changes to FCPD’s use of force policy, expanded oversight

Fairfax County police cruiser (via FCPD/Facebook)

A board-commissioned workgroup is calling for changes to Fairfax County Police Department’s use of force policies and expanded independent oversight.

At a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors safety and security committee meeting on Tuesday (May 16), a 10-member Police Reform Matrix Working Group (MWG) created by the board released a broad 46-page report that establishes the need for policy changes and additional accountability.

The report builds on more than 300 recommendations from a community-wide survey of residents that evaluated the FCPD’s public safety and security responsibilities. It was influenced by the death of Timothy Johnson, who was shot and killed by an officer who pursued him for reportedly stealing sunglasses at Tysons Corner Center.

The officer who shot Johnson was fired but not indicted. A second officer who also fired his gun remains with the department.

“The MWG could not overlook the totality of these events and the context within which we received and created an actionable set of policy and program initiatives,” the report said.

As noted by the report, the FCPD has had eight police shootings in the past 15 months after the prior decade averaged 1.5 per year. Starting in 2022, police officers have killed four people, including Brandon Lemagne just last week.

In a recent study, a team from the University of Texas San Antonio found Black civilians are almost two times more likely than white civilians to experience high levels of force. Additionally, Black civilians were 1.2 times more likely than arrested white civilians to have force used against them.

Board Chairman Jeff McKay said the report is working document that will inform continuous change in the FCPD, which he said is in a much better place than it was in 2015.

“To be a great police department, you have to constantly evolve,” McKay said.

Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn said he appreciates the recommendations — some of which are already going forward — particularly the co-responder model, which emphasizes coordination between police and mental health professionals.

“This is not easy. This is complex fraught with emotion, human emotion,” Alcorn said, adding that the rise in shootings by officers is not acceptable.

But Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity said he struggled to reconcile the report with high levels of confidence reported by recent community surveys.

“We don’t have broad community input into this. We’ve got a group of police reform folks that got together and hasn’t heard the other side of the impact,” Herrity said.

Looking forward

The report argues that most recommendations by the county’s Use of Force Community Advisory Committee — a group charged with reviewing the university’s report — weren’t adopted in full, despite revisions to FCPD’s use-of-force general order in 2022.

It emphasizes that any force must be proportional to the risk of harm to the officer or others, and the events leading up to the use of force have to be taken into account. It also says the FCPD should add pointing a gun or other weapon to its definition of force, revising a current standard that treats it as a separate reportable action not subject to a use-of-force investigation.

Other recommendations include a foot pursuit policy dictating when officers can chase a suspect. After civil rights groups decried the lack of an existing policy in the wake of Johnson’s death, the FCPD said it will implement one based on guidance from an outside review of recent police shootings.

The report also calls on the FCPD to expand its co-responder team, which is currently only staffed from 2-10 p.m. The model intends to ensure behavioral health professionals are the first point of contact for people who are disoriented, intoxicated or in a behavioral health crisis.

That recommendation comes on the heels of the shooting death of Jasper Aaron Lynch in August 2022. Lynch was shot and killed at a home in McLean while experiencing a mental health crisis.

Non-voting members on the working group include representatives from the FCPD, the Civilian Review Panel (CRP), and the Office of Independent Police Auditor (IPA).

The report also calls on expanded independent oversight, including allowing the review panel and IPA to delineate when they should monitor FCPD investigations or conduct independent ones.

It says the panel should be allowed to review FCPD administrative investigations involving allegations of bias or profiling, and that the IPA should be allowed to recommend when the Commonwealth’s Attorney should proceed with independent criminal investigations of officers.

Maintaining and improving police officer excellence also ranked high on the report’s recommendations, including the need for evaluating officers’ understanding of escalation tactics and crisis intervention skills and training. Emphasis on community engagement was also flagged as a need for improvement.

The report also notes a need for more data transparency. For example, public data overstates the proportion for white arrestees because Latino individuals are included in that category. Additionally, data on police stops and searches of pedestrians isn’t made public.

“These shortcomings increase the challenge of building and sustaining community trust by suggesting there is something to hide, even though FCPD’s approach is consistent with historical policing practice throughout much of the country,” the report states.

Use-of-force incidents should be analyzed to determine if disparities persist, examine full details on those encounters, including escalation measures taken, and flag any officers who repeatedly escalate initially minor encounters.

“Additionally, full transparency and a ramped-up effort to communicate broadly the status of these recommendations is of the utmost importance in building trust and community confidence in the ongoing efforts by the County and the FCPD to achieve protective, equitable, responsive, and respectful policing,” the report said.

Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk said the board will get Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis’s review of the report at a future meeting.

“They have worked diligently to figure ways to share more data,” Lusk said.

MWG member Vernon Walton said the erosion of trust in police can make it difficult for a community to be its “best self.”

“Jasper Aaron Lynch, Timothy McCree Johnson cannot simply be names added to a list,” Walton said. “But their names, and particularly their deaths, should propel us to greater reflection, rigorous reform, practical policy, and a more caring community.”

Photo via FCPD/Facebook