Protests Spur Pledge For Police Reform

ONE OF THE SPEAKERS talks to a crowd of over a hundred at Sunday’s demonstration in Cherry Hill Park. This gathering, as well as others that took place in and around the City of Falls Church, sprouted up in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. (Photo: J. Michael Whalen)

Following three powerful days where thousands of City of Falls Church residents and friends took to the streets of the Little City to join protests against police violence in cities large and small all across the U.S., the Falls Church City Council voted unanimously Monday night to authorize F.C. Mayor David Tarter to sign former President Barack Obama’s “Mayor’s Pledge,” which he did Tuesday.

A march down Park Avenue last Thursday was organized by two George Mason High School students, Sarah Ettinger and Ariana Hameed, and it drew well over 1,000. A rally in Cherry Hill Park Sunday afternoon drew over 500 organized by two former Mason High students, Tara Guido and Loreto Martinez, and featured remarks by F.C. Mayor David Tarter. Then at a rally hosted by the Tinner Hill Foundation at the Tinner Hill Monument on South Washington Street the unveiling of a black sign reading “Another Lynching Today,” featured U.S. Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr.

The Obama pledge adopted by the F.C. Council Monday calls for mayors, city councils and police oversight bodies all across the U.S. to address police use of force policies.

“With the full support of our City Council and Police Chief, I am pleased to join mayors nationwide to review our police department’s use of force policies in an open and transparent manner with our community,” said Mayor Tarter in a statement Tuesday.

“The use of force is the most extreme and solemn power that any government has. It can never be taken lightly. Because of that we are moving to make sure that our community and elected officials have a greater say in, and oversight of, our procedures and policies to ensure that they are fairly and evenhandedly applied to all. We will be reaching out to the community to seek those interested in joining in this review.”

According to the Obama Pledge website, “The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the loss of far too many Black lives to list, have left our nation anguished and outraged. More than 1,000 people are killed by police every year in America, and Black people are three times more likely to be killed than White people. We can take steps and make reforms to combat police violence and systemic racism within law enforcement. Together, we can work to redefine public safety so that it recognizes the humanity and dignity of every person. Mayors and other City Council officials are uniquely positioned to introduce common-sense limits on police use of force.”

The pledge includes a commitment to: 1. Review police use of force policies; 2. Engage communities by including a diverse range of input, experiences, and stories in a review; 3. Report the findings of a review to the community and seek feedback; 4. Reform the community’s police use of force policies.

At Monday’s Council meeting, Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin reiterated the extensive remarks she made before in internal City all-hands staff meeting last week where she called the death of Floyd “an intentional and barbaric act” and she said, “there is nothing more sacred in police work than the trust of the community in which we serve.” That full statement was published in last week’s News-Press.

Gavin said she was heartened by the turnout at last weekend’s events in Falls Church, and said she was especially impressed by the strong turnout of young people at the events.

She said “they are our future and met with a group of George Mason High School students as well as a contingent from the American Civil Liberties Union in the course of the current wave of activism.

She recalled the opportunity that she had in 2014 to visit the White House where a group of law enforcement leaders met with President Obama for the unveiling of a report of Obama’s White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The task force was charged with developing recommendations on ways to build greater trust between law enforcement and citizens in the wake of the police killing incident in Ferguson, Missouri.

The co-author of that report, Gavin said, was a friend, a former City of Falls Church resident, in fact. Laurie O. Robinson, now of the Police Foundation, used to live on Hillwood Avenue and was co-chair of Obama’s task force.

Another seminal influence on Chief Gavin, she said, has been Falls Church’s Human Resources Director Steve Mason who was also in the meeting Monday.

She said the department’s emphasis on “deescalation” and the development of trust may benefit from a citizen review board, and when asked about police in the F.C. department wearing body cameras, she said her department is in the process of revamping its system but is constrained by cost factors, although she affirmed that body cameras may be federally mandated in legislation coming out of Congress in the coming period.

The Council took under advisement the suggestion of citizen Josh Shokur, a member of the Housing Commission, who said that in his lifelong residency in the City he’s gotten to know almost no one with the police department. He suggested that ways for members of the community to meet and converse with members of the police department may be helpful.

Council member Letty Hardi said she “has the utmost respect for the professionalism and preventative approach” of the F.C. police department, suggesting policies to adopt could include a civilian review board, eschewing purchase of military surplus equipment (reportedly only $800 of City money has ever been spent this way), limited use of civil forfeitures, competitive City expenditures on police as a percentage of total costs numbers, and a clear mandate for officers to intervene in the event of excessive action by another officer.

Hardi emphasized that “with 400 years of inequality, it will be a challenge to dismantle systemic racism.”

Mayor Tarter said he was “heartened to have the City’s leadership speaking with one voice” on the matter.

In his remarks at Sunday’s Cherry Hill Park rally, Tarter said the park was the site of a family home of William Blaisdell. “In 1861, Mr. Blaisdell faced an agonizing decision. Like his neighbors and many other citizens around the state, he was asked to vote for or against secession from the Union. In an act of defiance, Blaisdell was one of the few who voted against secession. It was a small act, maybe, but one worth remembering. In that environment, simply voting your conscience could have cost you your life.”

He went on to describe how, in the Jim Crow era of racist reaction, “Joseph Tinner, a local quarryman, and E. B. Henderson, a physical education teacher, founded the first rural branch of the N.A.A.C.P. in America.”

He added, “I welcome you to Cherry Hill Park which can be seen as a place of resistance, of moral courage and it is fitting that we are gathered here today to take a stand against more recent injustice.”

He concluded, “We’re all here to raise our voices and say this country belongs to us all, and there is no one in it more deserving of decency and justice than any other…Democracy is hard work, but it works, and the good news is we have an election in just a few months. If you are angry, vote in November.”