Tysons, VA

The Vienna Police Department plans to join several other local law enforcement agencies in forming a Northern Virginia Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) that will investigate shootings, in-custody deaths, and other situations where a police officer could face criminal charges.

The Vienna Town Council voted unanimously last night (Monday) to approve a memorandum of understanding that outlines the responsibilities, organizational structure, and basic procedures that the CIRT will follow.

Police chiefs in the region came together to develop the CIRT as a tool to enable departments to share resources and to establish a more independent process for investigating incidents where an officer inflicts death or serious injury.

“We don’t even have that capability to do that ourselves right now,” Vienna Police Chief Jim Morris said regarding the concurrent criminal and administrative investigations that are required after a use-of-force incident. “…This would solve that problem for us. It would also solve the problem of making sure you have independent, unbiased investigations.”

Under the CIRT MOU, which will take effect on Dec. 15, each agency will appoint a detective and a supervisor to serve on the team for two-year terms. The team will be governed by a board of directors that consists of the heads of the participating departments.

The team can be activated by a police chief when a critical incident occurs in their jurisdiction. Team members from the department under investigation would not participate in that criminal investigation, though they could act as a liaison officer.

Incidents that could trigger CIRT’s involvement include intentional and accidental shootings, in-custody deaths, police officer suicides, crashes where a vehicle is used as deadly force, and any action by a law enforcement officer during the performance of their duties that results in a death or life-threatening injury.

Vienna Police Chief Jim Morris emphasized that the CIRT is not meant to fill the same role as a citizen review board, which allows members of the public to provide input and evaluate police policies and procedures.

Instead, the CIRT will be responsible for conducting interviews, gathering evidence, and other aspects of a criminal investigation so that the case can be turned over to a prosecutor, who then decides whether to bring charges against the officers involved in the incident.

Morris says Vienna currently doesn’t have any formal written policy dictating how its police department would handle a criminal investigation in these situations. If the town opted out of CIRT, it would need to develop an arrangement with the Fairfax County Police Department so that there is a process in place if a critical incident occurs in Vienna.

“In this day and age especially, we need something in writing for these investigations,” Morris said.

Including the Town of Vienna, 11 Northern Virginia agencies have agreed to participate in the CIRT:

  • Arlington County
  • City of Fairfax
  • City of Falls Church
  • Town of Herndon
  • Town of Leesburg
  • City of Manassas
  • City of Manassas Park
  • The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police Department
  • Prince William County
  • Town of Purcellville

According to Morris, Fairfax County was “integral” to developing the CIRT memo, but the department ultimately decided not to join since it has the resources to conduct administrative and criminal investigations on its own, though the FCPD could reconsider when a new chief replaces the retiring Chief Ed Roessler in February.

The involvement of multiple county-level agencies led some Vienna Town Council members to raise concerns about the possibility of the CIRT pulling officers’ attention away from their duties in the town.

Morris responded that he believes the workload will be manageable since the kinds of incidents that the CIRT would investigate are relatively rare, but if any issues come up, the town could reevaluate its involvement. Departments can leave the team if they notify the board of directors in writing 30 days in advance.

Vienna Town Manager Mercury Payton says he does not anticipate any costs associated with the team that the town would not spend otherwise. He believes the CIRT will enhance the credibility of law enforcement agencies in Northern Virginia.

“That’s one reason why we wanted to come publicly to the council, because I think it’s such a positive step forward for the region and, hopefully, will be something that will be replicated throughout the country,” Payton said.

Photo via Vienna Police Department/Facebook

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