Falls Church Committee Suggests Independent Oversight, More Staff for Law Enforcement

The City of Falls Church should establish independent processes for reviewing use-of-force incidents involving police officers and sheriff’s deputies, a committee tasked with evaluating the community’s relationship with local law enforcement found.

In a report released on Feb. 10 and reviewed by the city council last night (Monday), the Falls Church Use of Force Review Committee recommended that the city create a citizen review board and identify an outside organization to manage internal affairs investigations by the City of Falls Church Police Department and Sheriff’s Office.

“The implementation of an independent review of use of force incidents will mitigate the potential risk inherent in the current system,” the committee said in its report. “An independent finding will not face the same level of legal challenges or public scrutiny because the process will be clear, the reviewers will not be in the officer’s supervisory chain, and the board will be transparent.”

The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation during its special session last year giving localities the authority to establish civilian bodies with oversight over local law enforcement agencies, though the law will not officially be effective until July 1.

If Falls Church pursues the review committee’s recommendations for independent oversight, it would follow in the steps of Fairfax County, which created an independent police auditor and civilian review panel in 2016 to evaluate select Fairfax County Police Department investigations.

The committee also recommends that the City of Falls Church allocate funds to increase staffing for the police department, noting that the agency has contained about 33 positions since the 1970s despite a roughly 56% rise in the city’s population in recent years, including a nearly 20% increase between 2010 and 2019.

In addition to adding more full-time officers, the report suggests hiring a full-time certified trainer who could help train police officers and sheriff’s deputies on use-of-force practices and procedures, bias reduction and restorative justice, and management of situations involving vulnerable populations, such as individuals with mental health challenges, people with disabilities, and non-English speakers.

The committee argues that failing to staff law enforcement and public safety agencies at levels commensurate to the population they serve “is a significant risk,” resulting in personnel who have less time to train and receive insufficient organizational support to perform their duties.

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • Develop a more comprehensive approach to community interactions and a process for gathering and following up on feedback
  • Add a mental health professional for each patrol shift, coupled with a review of city law enforcement’s capacities for responding to mental health calls
  • Create a Police Affiliated Critical Incident Process to handle trauma from police encounters with citizens that result in serious injury or death
  • Further evaluate the feasibility of a body-worn camera program
  • Develop specific guidelines for when “last resort” tactics like baton strikes and chokeholds might be deemed justifiable
  • Standardize and consistently maintain electronic records, including department policies
  • Increase retention of information on personnel involved in use-of-force incidents

Formed by the Falls Church City Council on June 12, the use of force review committee developed its report based on a review of local law enforcement policies, incident reports, and responses to a community survey intended to gauge the public’s opinion of the city’s police department and sheriff’s office.

Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin and Sheriff Matt Cay expressed their commitment to following through on the recommendations, including some regarding culture and training that can be implemented immediately without requiring further budget or policy considerations.

“When people get together and have these uncomfortable conversations, good can come of it, and good has come out of it,” Cay said. “As the chief pointed out, it is time for law enforcement to modernize itself…These are attainable goals. We just have to maintain the momentum and commitment to the process.”

The city council members praised the 13-person committee for the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the report, acknowledging that, with the next budget season quickly approaching, it will now be their job to determine how to allocate resources to ensure that the recommendations are put in place.

“I just want to iterate my support for future budget requests that will be likely needed to make these things happen,” Councilmember Debbie Hiscott said. “I think this is going to be one of our top priorities.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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