Fairfax County has joined the other large jurisdictions in the DC area in moving towards having its police force wear body cameras. In a vote that would provide $11 million in funding, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of 1,210 body cameras. The funding will also go towards providing training for officers and hiring 34 people to help deal with the equipment and screen footage for privacy concerns.
The measure was proposed by John Cook (R-Braddock), who chairs the public safety committee, and ended up being passed unanimously even though Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said there were better things the county could be spending its money on. The cameras will begin being distributed next year with all of them being provided within the next three years.
As there’s been increased attention devoted to the interaction police officers have with the general public and cell phone footage often pops up of officers engaging in questionable behavior, many localities have moved towards having their police force equipped with body cameras. The move is designed both to hold officers accountable and make sure everybody is protected if there is a dispute as to what actually happened.
In Fairfax, the decision comes as part of the response to an officer shooting a Springfield resident on his porch back in August of 2013. Officer Adam Torres would eventually be fired and pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter after he shot a man whose hands were raised and told officers “I don’t wanna get shot because I don’t want to die today.” Torres claims he saw the civilian quickly move his hands to his waist, but none of the other officers saw this and he never even gave the man a warning.
Outrage over the shooting became even more intense as word spread as there was questionable behavior among some staff involved with the situation. County lawyers, for example, had apparently told the police department not to give the officer’s personnel file over to the commonwealth attorney’s officer that was investigation the situation. Sharon Bulova, the chair of the county board of supervisors, therefore appointed a task force to figure out ways Fairfax could help improve its police force.
Among the 200 recommendations the task force provided was a call for body cameras and the creation of a nine member civilian review board that would investigation allegations of abuse of power and misconduct. A pilot program for the body cameras was implemented in 2017 and the county also figured out ways to address privacy concerns while also utilizing the benefits of the cameras.
Of course, the cameras are just one aspect of the overall discussion that’s needed regarding transparency in the criminal justice system. In the aftermath of the 2013 shooting, information was withheld from the public for about a year and a half. The flow of information was slowed at least in part due to Ray Morrogh (the Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney) having to turn the investigation over to federal authorities after he was unable to secure cooperation from local authorities.
One of the key aspects of the investigation showed Torres apparently had a history of misconduct and a quick temper. He had blown up at a county prosecutor in court just a few weeks before the shooting and was apparently fighting with his wife on his way to the call — a fact that might have caused him to miss key information dispatchers were providing over the radio.
It should be noted that in the vein of more transparency, most police officers actually support the measure. Since the overwhelming majority of police officers are trained well and conduct themselves in an honorable manner, most officers are happy to have this displayed to the public. Plus, the cameras can help secure evidence that can help investigations and eventually used in court, help provide training material, and help protect everyone involved when there are use of force complaints from the public.