News

Progressive Reforms For F.C. Police On Horizon

USE OF FORCE practices and changes to them are the focus of a proposed oversight committee for City of Falls Church Police. (Photo: J. Michael Whalen)

In the explosive days since May 25 — the Monday when an unarmed George Floyd was killed by a uniformed police officer after he had pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, all of which was caught on video and broadcast on national TV — there have been virtually nonstop protests and demonstrations involving millions all across the U.S. in cities large and small.

Following on the three powerful demonstrations in the City of Falls Church, reflecting the mixed demographics of the protests nationwide, in the last week efforts turned to constructive action and sustainable change to address issues of systemic racism and prejudice that are underlying themes for so many manifestations of cruelty in society.

They include 1. a proposal for the formation of a F.C. police oversight committee aimed at changes in use of force practices, 2. a proposed name change of one or two of Falls Church City’s five public schools (postponed by the School Board until next Tuesday), 3. the proposed formation of a F.C. historic committee to carefully and fearlessly reexamine the true intentions behind the formation of the City of Falls Church carved out of Fairfax County in the late 1940s, 4. a powerful address on the issues of compassion and change by a senior at the George Mason High School online graduation ceremony last week and, 5. in light of the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday outlawing LGBT employment discrimination, the formation of a new “LGBT Falls Church” entity.

The police oversight committee idea followed an extensive briefing to the F.C. City Council at its online meeting this Monday night by the veteran police officer and now City Human Resources Director Steve Mason and F.C. Police Chief Mary Gavin on proper police training and practices. It included a proposal by City Manager Wyatt Shields to form a 12-member volunteer police oversight committee by June 30 that will prepare a report and use that as the basis for a public forum and resulting in changes proposed to the Council.

Mason said that “the use of force is a serious matter and the most solemn power a government has.”

“This must not be a one-time thing,” said Council member Letty Hardi, who suggested it be repeated every six months. She said it should include investigations into funding levels for the police department relative to other jurisdictions and also cover the Sheriff’s Department.

“This is a new day,” she said. “This must not be allowed to fall by the wayside anywhere in the U.S.

The committee will be grounded in the four action items listed in the Obama Foundation’s “common sense limits on the use of force,” including a review of the last five years of incident reports, an engagement of the community on policing practices to “hear what the community says,” a report of findings to the community and the solicitation of feedback and reforms in the use of force policies and procedures.

It would involve a review of training practices at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy that serves 17 member agencies to train prospective new police officers for 14 weeks.

(It was noted that on July 1, legislation passed in Richmond earlier this year and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam will become law, and that will include a lot of new local discretion on the implementation of gun use laws by individual jurisdictions. So far, only Alexandria has begun to explore what it may want to do once empowered to do so, according to Shields.)

The F.C. School Board did not arrive at the point on its agenda to discuss possible name changes for George Mason High and Thomas Jefferson Elementary until 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, and voted to move the issue to a work session next Tuesday, June 23, when it will be the first item on the agenda.

The board heard almost an hour of public comments on the subject taking all sides.

The F.C. founding history project was the brainchild of Eric Pelton, who serves on the board of the Economic Development Authority, arising amid informal discussions that the incorporation of the City was done in order to preserve racial segregation.

F.C. Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly is spearheading the formation of the study group that is scheduled to hold an initial online pow-wow today.

Taped for replay on June 10 as part of George Mason High School’s Class of 2020 online graduation ceremony, senior class vice president Kate Rasmussen delivered a particularly passionate address to her classmates on the value of seeking new meaning in life that is particularly accessible at this time for “establishing a new standard of normal.” The “future is in our hands more than ever” to advance a “broader, more diverse world.”

“Seek a cause that can spark an epiphany that says, ‘I can do something about that,’” she said. “Question, pursue the truth, empathize with others. Be a helper.”

With the historic and surprise 6-3 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to extend employment protections to LGBT citizens, a “LGBT Falls Church” entity has been “called into being” by News-Press owner Nicholas Benton, himself a gay activist pioneer dating to 1969 and author of two books on the subject.

That move was applauded by F.C. Mayor David Tarter, who wrote, “Congratulations, I am looking forward to hearing more from LGBT Falls Church.” More information is available from LGBTFallsChurch@gmail.com.