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Auditor's report largely vindicates police in several incidents

Evaluation looked at times when officers pointed their weapons toward individuals

Fairfax County police mostly were vindicated in the independent police auditor’s recent review of seven incidents between 2017 and 2020 in which officers pointed firearms at people, but an officer violated policy in one case and others failed significantly in another.

That’s according to Independent Police Auditor Richard Schott summarized his views on each incident in a March 29 memorandum to top county leadership.

County police in 2017 began documenting occasions when officers pointed their firearms to gain control or compliance. The department previously considered such actions as “reportable,” but not uses of force, but as of Jan. 1 this year began tracking and treating such incidents as force.

Listed fifth in Schott’s non-chronologically ordered memo was a Sept. 14, 2019, incident in which police responded to a reported burglary of an occupied dwelling. The suspect, known to the house’s owner, fled after being confronted by the homeowner and police downgraded the call to unlawful entry.

Officers went to the suspect’s address at 2:03 a.m. When the suspect’s father allegedly opened the door aggressively, officers briefly pointed their firearms at him, Schott’s memo read.

The officers subsequently holstered their weapons and explained they were looking for the father’s son. When the father tried to shut the door, an officer blocked it with one of his feet, which caused the door to bounce back and strike the father, slightly cutting his forehead. The officers then conducted a search of the residence, but the son was not inside.

The father filed a complaint alleging assault-and-battery because officers pointed their weapons at him and stated the warrantless search was illegal.

Schott concluded that officers’ pointing their weapons at the person who answered the door was “more than what was reasonable under the circumstances.” Officers could have maintained a tactical advantage, and not pointed their weapons at the man, by having their firearms unholstered and held in the “modified ready” position – i.e., held decocked and muzzle-down against their bodies and with their trigger fingers straight along the weapons’ frames, the memo read.

Schott also agreed with the Fairfax Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney that the officers’ entry and subsequent search of the home were illegal because there was no exigency justifying them. The Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) earlier accepted and acted upon that conclusion.

Incidents also covered in the memo:

• On June 6, 2017, several officers responded to an armed man on the top level of a parking garage. Some officers had rifles in hand, and one pointed a rifle at a driver who tried to leave the garage. While not faulting the officer for doing so during the tense situation, the officer later failed to report pointing his weapon, which was mandatory under a newly adopted policy, the memo read.

• On Jan. 21, 2018, police responded to a call about a military veteran who allegedly was threatening to kill himself and “take others with him.” When the man reportedly appeared at his door with an object in hand, one officer unholstered his firearm after repeatedly telling the man to show his hands.

Although the object in the man’s hand turned out to be a cordless telephone, Schott concluded the officer “acted objectively reasonable” because of the probability of the man’s having a weapon, his earlier threats and the object in his hand when officers arrived.

• On May 22, 2018, officers pointed their weapons at a suspect who reportedly tried to evade officers in Springfield Mall’s parking lot after an alleged attempted illegal-drug buy.

Schott determined the officers’ pointing of weapons was reasonable in light of the “dynamic nature” of the “tactical vehicle intercept” maneuver they used to stop the suspect’s vehicle, and because the suspect allegedly had accepted money for the drug transaction without providing any narcotics.

• On Sept. 10, 2018, when police responded to a reported shoplifting tried to arrest two suspects at Tysons Corner Center, a group of the suspects’ companions allegedly interfered.

One suspect reportedly got on top of an officer and a friend allegedly threatened physical violence against the officer. The officer pointed his firearm at the suspect’s friend and ordered him to back away, which Schott concluded was “reasonable under the tense and chaotic circumstances.”

• On June 12, 2019, a father whose son was struggling with undercover officers trying to arrest him reportedly drove his vehicle directly at police. All four officers pointed their firearms at the vehicle, which the father then stopped about 10 feet from them before putting it into reverse. Schott determined officers had “acted reasonably.”

• On June 20, 2020, officers unholstered their firearms when a man allegedly refused to get out of a vehicle in his garage after earlier evading questioning about an incident. Body-camera footage showed police did not point their weapons at the suspect and held them in the “modified ready” position.

Supervisor Jimmy Bierman (D-Dranesville), who previously chaired the county’s Police Civilian Review Panel, said he welcomed the additional oversight of police actions.

“This report is typical of the independent police auditor, who attempts to provide objective conclusions and ground his findings in the FCPD’s general orders and laws of the land,” Bierman said. “I recommend reading this report to better understand what constitutes objectively reasonable pointing of a firearm and what does not in Fairfax County.”