In 1930, the population of Fairfax County was a bit over 25,000. By 1940, it was nearly 41,000, inflated by the post-Depression economy and the proliferation of the federal workforce and military. The Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) was created that year when the then-Sheriff, overwhelmed with duties managing the county jail, persuaded the Board of Supervisors to relieve his office of criminal police work by forming a county police department. At that time, it had five officers serving 41,000–1 officer per 8,000 residents–in an area of 400 square miles.
A to the time, interracial marriage was illegal, poll taxes were collected and the nation had not yet experienced any effect of the military-industrial complex cautioned by President Eisenhower. In the succeeding decades, rapid economic growth hosting a commensurate population spawned today’s department numbering 1,400 officers serving a county of some 1.1 million people (1 officer for every 79 residents). It is the 30th largest police department in the country, and one of only 41 counties with its a police department. The vast majority of county law enforcement nationwide is under the jurisdiction of elected sheriffs.
FCPD has a budget of $203.5 million, and even boasts its own state-of-the-art helicopter, Fairfax One. It functions through three main divisions: Patrol, Investigations/Operation, and Administration. There are eight district stations, roughly mirroring the county’s nine magisterial districts. [Fairfax City is its own jurisdiction, not part of the county, and therefore has its own police department.]
As a quasi-urban department, it is to be expected that FCPD would find itself experiencing issues of conflict and confrontation. In 2006 a Fairfax officer shot and killed an unarmed citizen; three years later, another officer shot and killed an unarmed motorist. The Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, created after the 2009 shooting, pressed for a civilian review board, but the police chief resisted. In 2013, however, a case emerged that garnered much local publicity when a Fairfax officer shot and killed an unarmed man as he stood in the doorway of his house. The victim’s partner filed a lawsuit, which was settled in 2015 for $3 million. The officer was indicted on a charge of second degree murder and pleaded guilty before trial in 2016. He was sentenced to 1 year in jail. Less than a week after sentencing, he was released on a plea deal after serving 10 months.
In February 2017 the Board of Supervisors appointed nine members to the new Police Civilian Review Panel.
This case and others led to heightened pressure for the creation of a police review board. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors established an ad hoc commission to review the police department’s policies, practices, and programs regarding police-community relations, police-involved incidents, and public release of information.
In February 2017 the Board approved the creation of the new Police Civilian Review Panel, appointing nine members of the community to serve on the board. The members were to represent a cross-section of the county, with at least one member having some relevant law-enforcement experience. (See https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/policecivilianreviewpanel/ for more information on panel requirements.) That same month, it appointed the county’s first independent police auditor. In 2018 the panel received 31 complaints; action was taken in response to five of them.
In 2018 the Board sought data on FCPD’s use of force; over 500 incidents were cited, disproportionately involving African-Americans. No cause was established. The Board is continuing to look into the matter, seeking an academic partner to research factors affecting this outcome.
Understanding and coming to terms with police-involved shootings is an issue across the Commonwealth and the United States. According to an August 31, 2019, report in the Lynchburg News & Advance, of the 85 police shootings in which a civilian was injured or killed between July 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2018, just 60 were included in the annual state police reports. State police acknowledged the missing data in the reports, which officials attributed to routine errors and confusion over reporting requirements of a recent law mandating such disclosure. Such metrics as well as their accuracy and completeness are substantial concerns for public policy and legislators.
Another technological asset in dealing with police-involved shootings is body-worn cameras. FCPD has begun using them, but it will cost $30 million to outfit all of its patrol officers. The Board of Supervisors, from public statements, seems poised to approve such an expenditure shortly, seeing it as a necessity. While the full benefit of body cams remains to be documented, their presence should tend to increase public trust in police conduct.
As a sizable law enforcement agency in a county continuing to grow in the 21st century, FCPD faces challenges from emerging technology. In a case from 2015 resolved just last spring, the ACLU brought suit against the department for its routine use of automated license plate readers that generate record data on individuals not suspected of any crime. The court ultimately decided that the use of such readers may only be allowed when related to a criminal investigation.
In one area, at least, it seems that FCPD has not jumped on the technology bandwagon. Some 225 police departments across the country now participate with the Ring doorbell, in which Ring works with police to convince citizens to not only buy the device, but also to sign up for its neighborhood watch app. In exchange, police get access to individuals’ Ring video footage (should they agree). Further, Ring is owned by Amazon. Police can request the footage directly from Amazon if it has been uploaded to the cloud and the request is sent within 60 days of recording–even if individuals deny police access to that footage. Separately, Amazon is training police on how to talk citizens into handing over footage. Some critics are concerned about Amazon/Ring’s relationship with police departments in this way as troubling, if not corrupting and intrusive. It deserves further examination.
On whole, the suburban character and sprawl of Fairfax County has likely contributed to the few police-involved shootings that are news fodder and national political twitter commentary. However, as the county grows, more incidents involving the interactions of citizens and law enforcement can be expected to surface. A well-trained corps of officers along with diligent management is necessary to ensure public trust and civilian cooperation, while reducing the potential for physical harm.