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Friday, December 17, 2010

Compelling Police Accountability

Compelling police accountability
The Washington Post - OPINION - December 17, 2010

FAIRFAX COUNTY POLICE enjoy a long-standing reputation for professionalism and scandal-free dealings with the public they are sworn to protect. However, the department's recent track record for accountability in a few cases involving shootings by police officers suggests there is room for improvement. In one such case, the county police have remained tight-lipped about the fatal shooting 13 months ago of David Masters, a carpenter and former Army Green Beret with bipolar disease. The police have been conducting an internal investigation into the shooting for a year, and they have yet to release findings. The officer who shot Mr. Masters has remained on the force at full pay, though he is limited to administrative duties. The department has not adequately explained why the investigation has taken so long. The incident involved just a handful of officers, one of whom fired the shots that killed Mr. Masters as he sat alone and unarmed in his vehicle. Police officials, when asked when they might reach some sort of conclusion, have reacted with what amounts to a shrug. Some of Mr. Masters's loved ones are furious. A group calling itself the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, founded by a retired District police detective who lives in Fairfax, has urged the county to establish a citizens board empowered to review questionable incidents involving the police - particularly in cases of lethal force used by officers. The proposal has support from members of the county Board of Supervisors, which asked Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer to look into establishing a review panel. The next step is unclear, as is the county's approach. Fairfax police have made no effort to contact the national association that serves as a clearinghouse for information about how citizen review boards work. Nor have they contacted the Office of Police Complaints in the District, a 10-year-old body with considerable expertise and resources. Dozens of police departments nationally, including plenty that are smaller than Fairfax's, have such oversight mechanisms. The most effective ones function independently of the police chain of command and have investigative muscle - even, in the case of the District's office, the power to issue subpoenas. Judging from the less-than-forthright behavior of the Fairfax police in the Masters case, there is every reason to think that creating an external review body would be helpful, both as a means to shake loose information in response to reasonable allegations of police error, misconduct and abuse, and to encourage accountability.

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