Use of Force Committee’s Report Spurs F.C. Police Changes

A MAJORITY of residents who took part in the Use of Force committee’s survey were pleased with the Falls Church’s police department conduct, but Chief Mary Gavin believes there is always room for improvement. (Photo: News-Press)

The City of Falls Church’s Use of Force committee presented its comprehensive report to the City Council last week, and looks to motivate some changes to Falls Church’s police department in both the short and long term.

The 189-page report is the culmination of months of work after the 13-member committee was initially established by the City last summer following nationwide protests against police brutality. Its goal was to review all instances where Falls Church’s police used force over a five year period from Jan. 2015 – June 2020.

The committee recorded 113 uses of force during that period. When responses that involved wildlife were removed (such as confronting rabid animals), that number dropped to 86 instances. Those 27 instances involving wildlife were also the only ones where officers fired their weapon — on only nine occasions (or 10 percent of all instances) in the observed time frame did officers approach anything remotely aggressive.

That included examples cited in the report such as “arm injured when broke window; bump/cut on forehead when individual slammed head on plexiglass in patrol car; hit head when tackled; said head hurt, required medics; and required medics for hand pain from prior surgery.”

Considering the City’s crime rate was 36 percent lower than the national average in 2019, according to website Area Vibes which relies on the FBI’s publicly available data, it’s fair to wonder what the committee is trying to improve about City police. In fact, Chief of Police Mary Gavin told the News-Press that the last time a Falls Church officer shot and killed a suspect was in January 1999. But Gavin was also effusive about the role the committee will play in helping improve the department.

“The profession as a whole is evolving and changing, and so are the expectations of the community,” Gavin said. “And so where we may not have any egregious acts of use of force, there’s still a need to absolutely change with the times and ensure that we are on the cutting edge of all of the current techniques and all of the less than lethal options that we have out there to ensure that we don’t get into trouble.”

Part of that evolution is Gavin joining the call for body-worn cameras by the City’s officers — a stance she wasn’t committed to as recently as three years ago. Though dependent on budget space, the head of Falls Church police believes they will come in the near future. Other tasks already being worked on by police includes training for crisis intervention so they can handle people suffering from mental health episodes appropriately. Gavin said she would be interested in a dedicated crisis intervention specialist riding along on patrols if the budget permits it, similar to what Prince William County implemented in November.

At the City Council meeting on Feb. 23, Gavin told committee chair Janis Johnson and vice-chair Brian Creswick that she can work on some of its recommendations in the short term. Explicitly outlining when “last resort” tactics are appropriate to use — for instance, trachea holds, carotid artery holds and baton strikes to the head — is one suggestion. Writing out the police department’s own core values and updating language on how it monitors uses of force, biases among its officers and its disciplinary guidelines were recommended as well.

The idea of a Citizen Review Board (CRB) was one of the more significant changes pitched by the committee. The CRB essentially audits a completed police investigation and allows the board to offer ways to improve police procedures going forward.

FALLS CHURCH CHIEF OF POLICE Mary Gavin (top right), gives her impression of the Use of Force committee’s report during the City Council’s Feb. 22 meeting. (Screenshot: News-Press)

Neighboring Fairfax County created its Civilian Review Panel in 2017, three years before the Virginia legislature made it law to give citizen oversight bodies their own investigative powers, and has published 12 reports on officer responses since then. In its system, someone who interacted with or witnessed an officer interacting with a suspect can file a complaint to the board, and then the board will review the case and publish a report afterward. A majority of the board’s work has reaffirmed Fairfax County police’s handling of a given case, but there have been some scenarios where it revealed conflict between what is deemed as acceptable conduct by officers.

One such instance was a report filed last October that covered racial bias in policing. The incident in question took place in May 2019 when a detective followed someone to their apartment complex’s parking lot and approached them to ask if they live there because, as the office admitted in a recording, he didn’t believe the person did. Even after the interaction ended, the officer sat in his car and observed the person for a while before leaving.

Col. Edwin C. Roessler, Jr., the former chief of police for the county, said in the report that the detective showed poor judgment with his assumptions and speech, and should have had a better understanding of the area he patrols (the person questioned by the officer had a parking sticker signaling they did live at the complex, for example.) However, Roessler didn’t agree that there was any bias in the encounter. The panel disagreed overwhelmingly, and asked why the police wouldn’t interview co-workers to examine the detective’s racial bias. Roessler didn’t think that was necessary given the circumstances of the incident, causing the board to formally suggest the police reevaluate how it conducts internal investigations into bias.

“During case reviews, the department definitely listens to the panel’s recommendations,” said Anthony Guglielmi, the public affairs director for Fairfax County police, who has previous experience working communications for Chicago and Baltimore’s police departments. “A lot of the things [Chicago and Baltimore police] started implementing post-George Floyd…Fairfax has been doing since 2016. They’re early adopters of what we call a ‘co-production model,’ meaning the policies and procedures of the police department are co-developed with the residents of the county.”

Examples of greater citizen input influencing Fairfax’s policing that were cited by Guglielmi have been calls for body cameras and the county’s own use of force policies.

Back in Falls Church, the public appeared to be largely in favor of how the police do its job.

An open survey put out by the committee from mid-November until early December found that only 16 of 393 respondents to the survey rated the police’s performance as “poor or very poor” and 11 respondents rated the overall quality of the Falls Church police department as “poor or very poor in comparison to prior places they lived.”

Over 95 percent of respondents had never personally experienced a use of force from City police, and over 85 percent had never witnessed a use of force from police either.

Survey respondents were, by gender, majority women (52 percent) and, by race, majority white (70 percent). Of the 111 self-identified non-white respondents to the survey, there wasn’t a noticeable drop off in how the department is viewed from the overall survey results.

For example, only five respondents said the police department did a poor job compared to other places they’ve lived.

That represented five percent of non-white respondents, compared to three percent of all respondents who felt the same way.