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Fairfax County approves executive director position for police review panel

Fairfax County Public Safety Headquarters (via FCPD)

The Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel, a citizen-led board intended to help with police accountability, is getting an executive director.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the change on July 27 at the urging of the review panel, which is facing increasing caseloads and seeking to gain investigatory powers.

“We’re thrilled that this new position will help us maintain our independence,” Civilian Review Panel Chair Jimmy Bierman said, thanking Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay and Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk, who chairs the board’s public safety committee.

Established in December 2016, the civilian review panel reviews Fairfax County Police Department investigations into civilian complaints with allegations that a police officer abused their authority or engaged in misconduct.

While the panel can make recommendations regarding law enforcement policies and practices, it was not granted the authority to conduct its own investigations.

The review panel, which consists of nine volunteers, documented in February its need for an executive director in an annual report and a four-year review, a document that Bierman spent three months of 40-hour weeks to develop.

The executive director will help the panel document and summarize investigations. Currently, the panel reviews police investigations in person and writes lengthy, time-consuming reports, which means its efforts are heavily dependent on its chair’s schedule.

Bierman, an attorney, likens the change to a congressional committee relying on staff to help draft materials or a federal judge using legal staff to write bench memos.

“It adds to the professionalism of the panel,” he said. “We want to be fiercely independent.”

Since its creation, the review panel has also relied on staff in the office of the independent police auditor, which will now send one position to the panel for the executive director.

Bierman says the staffing switch will help the panel maintain a good working relationship with police by ensuring the independent police auditor’s resources are not overtaxed.

The change to the panel comes after the Virginia General Assembly adopted a law last year that officially permitted localities to create police oversight boards with the power to investigate incidents, make binding disciplinary determinations, and more.

Bierman says the law shows the Commonwealth is serious about supporting independent oversight bodies for police.

The new executive director won’t have independent investigatory powers, but the position could lay the groundwork for the Board of Supervisors to update the panel’s bylaws to give it more authority, as allowed by the new state law, according to Bierman.

The person hired for the new position will be paid $100,000 to $150,000 per year and report directly to the board of supervisors. Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity was the only supervisor to oppose the measure.

“I voted against this motion because I didn’t support the original motion to form the Civilian Review Panel as we had an Independent Police Auditor, which is where most significant reviews and recommendations for reforms have come from,” Herrity said in a statement.

On Sept. 28, the board of supervisors’ public safety committee is slated to hear a presentation about the review panel along with recommendations on further reforms in line with the panel’s four-year review.

Among other changes, the report recommended:

  • Authorizing an executive director to monitor police investigations of racial bias or profiling from the onset of an investigation, regardless of whether a complaint has been filed with the panel
  • Allowing the panel to conduct its own additional investigations, including interviewing the complainant and three witnesses
  • Permitting the panel to conduct a review of a completed police investigation of a complaint about racial bias or profiling without needing a person to request a review

Limited in its ability to gather independent information, the civilian review panel has consistently upheld Fairfax County police investigations into abuse of authority and misconduct complaints.

The one exception so far came in October 2020 when the panel determined that the FCPD’s internal review did not thoroughly investigate allegations of racial bias or profiling in a 2019 incident that involved an officer following and questioning a driver in Herndon.

Then-Police Chief Edwin Roessler determined the incident involved poor decision-making but wasn’t motivated by racial bias. The panel disagreed and referred the issue to the board of supervisors, which directed the department in January to take additional action regarding the panel’s request.

“This is part of why the four-year review requested that the panel mandate be changed from simply asking whether [an] investigation itself was ‘complete, thorough, accurate, objective, and impartial’ to determine whether the panel [believed] the conclusion of the investigation is ‘correct,'” Bierman said in a statement.

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