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Friday, October 14, 2016

Police work on building trust with the community

Capt. Thomas Rogers, commander of the Mason Police District speaks at a forum on police-community relations.  From the left: Officer Brian Hall, Officer Chantel Cochrane, Crime Prevention Officer Kat O'Leary, and Lt. William Giger.
The mostly African-American participants at a public forum on police-community relations Oct. 13 raised concerns about racial profiling, the use of force, racist officers, and the need for a more diverse police force and better training programs.

Panelists from the Mason Police District reassured the audience, at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church on Lincolnia Road, that they are aware of those issues and that efforts are under way to make improvements within the Fairfax County Police Department.

The dialogue among the police and community was aimed at building trust and establishing a positive relationship before problems arise.

A youth asks a question. 
The forum was sponsored by the Communities of Trust, a group established by Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova with input from the NAACP in 2015 in the wake of the shooting of an African-American youth by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, which led to civil unrest.

The group includes representatives from several law enforcement agencies, the fire department, the school system, the faith community, county agencies, and other organizations. The monthly meetings are open to the public.

To illustrate the idea that relationships are improved when the police and public get to know one another, the police officers on the panel spoke briefly about their families and career backgrounds before answering questions from the audience.

Use of force

Capt. Thomas Rogers, the newly appointed commander of the Mason Police District, said his priorities are ethical leadership, community engagement, and “respect for the sanctity of life.”

“What concerns me and what I care about is to treat everyone with dignity and respect,” said Rogers, who grew up in Fairfax County, went to Edison High School, and served a 10-year stint at the Mason Police Station in the 1990s.

“There are times when police work is not pretty,” Rogers acknowledged. “Sometimes you have to use force. But it must be reasonable to the situation.”

FCPD is in the process of revising its policy on the use of force and plans to present its recommendations to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors by the end of the year.

Effective communications is critical, said officer Brian Hall. “Our job is to sell compliance.”  The goal is “to use the absolute minimum use of force.”


FCPD practices “criminal profiling,” not racial profiling, said Officer Eddy Azcarate. Officers look for suspicious behavior – speeding, sitting in a car for hours, circling a neighborhood, for example. “It’s the behavior, what you do, not who you are,” he said.

Azcarate grew up in Culmore hanging around the 7-Eleven. As a police officer, he’s back at that parking lot getting to know the residents.

When asked whether police are more likely to stop a car with a black driver, Officer Gary Moore Jr., who is African-American, said, “if you’re speeding I’m going to pull you over. It’s impossible to see the race of a person until we get to the car.”

Moore said he can relate to youths because he “was not a good kid” and was expelled from his high school in a small town in Mississippi. He decided to get into law enforcement after serving in the Marines.

When asked what happens when an officer sees a colleague mistreating a black person, Lt. William Giger said, “any officer who sees another officer acting wrongly is compelled to report it to a supervisor and could be held accountable for not doing that.” All allegations of bias and racial profiling are investigated by the Internal Affairs Department.

Crime prevention officer Kat O’Leary, an art major in college, shared a video about how to act during a police stop. The main thing is to stay in your car and keep your hands on the steering wheel.

“If you are scared or nervous, say so,” O’Leary said. “Be honest about why you’re upset. You can ask for a supervisor or another officer, but remain respectful.

If it’s an unmarked car and you’re not sure if it’s a legitimate police car, pull into a well-lighted public area. You can call 911 if you’re uncomfortable.

If an officer gives you a summons, sign it. It’s not an admission of guilt. You can contest it in court. If you fail to sign a summons you could be arrested.

One of the officers said he pulled a car over the previous night and found the driver had a loaded gun and was wanted for murder and setting someone on fire in Texas.

Police-involved shooting

A child in the audience asked a question about the rising number of blacks killed by police across the country.

There have only been “five bad incidents” in the county in the past three years, Azcarate noted, and that’s tiny compared to the 100,000+ police interactions during that period. 

According to Rogers, of 17 police-involved shootings in 2015-16 in Virginia, seven involved black males. There were 754 incidents nationwide this year. 

There were no shootings in Fairfax County in 2015 and just one in 2016 that involved the FCPD. That one involved the hold-up of a jewelry store in Springfield. The suspect shot at a police officer and the officer opened fire and missed. [A Fairfax County sheriff’s deputy shot an killed a mental patient outside Inova Fairfax Hospital in August.]

According to Rogers, Fairfax County has few police-involved shootings compared to other parts of the country because “we have great training.” The vast majority of police departments are much smaller and are less able to screen out the “bad apples.”

“There are racist officers. You’d be a fool to say that’s not true,” he said.

FCPD Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. would like to outfit officers with body cameras but several issues need to be resolved first, including how to ensure the privacy of victims and how to store the massive amounts of footage. FCPS is also waiting to see what the General Assembly will do about a proposed bill on the use of body cameras.

Better training

The training program for new officers covers bias, cultural diversity, and ethics, said Officer Chantel Cochrane, who has four children and had been previously based at the police academy. The training recognizes that everyone has biases, she said, but “you can’t let biases affect the way you enforce the law.”

When the academy recently realigned its training program, it moved crisis intervention to the beginning of the course and added a class on the sanctity of life, Cochrane said.

According to Cochrane, Roessler is committed to improving diversity on the force. Currently, 82 percent of the officers are white, 8 percent are black, 5 percent are Asian and 5 percent are Hispanic. 

That compares to a county population that is 53 percent white, 10 percent black, 18 percent Asian, and 16 percent Hispanic.

A diversity council created by Roessler is looking at how to increase diversity on the force while still maintaining high standards, said  police chaplain Michael Shochet, the senior cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom who served on the Baltimore police force many years ago. FCPD prefers recruits with a college degree and requires them to have a clean record.

At the end of the forum, Rev. Carl Johnson, the pastor at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, said the meeting underscored the importance of the community and police and working together. “We learned to respect one another,” he said. 


  1. Love and appreciate the Fairfax County police department!!!

    1. How does a Mason Police District commander establish trust when they are never around long enough for even the community leaders to learn their names? A sense that there is no point in getting to know the commander because they won't be around long is not how you build trust. And it would help if a few of the patrolmen lived in the district.

    2. Agreed, Captain Lee was the only one that stuck around long enough for the community to engage and trust him. This bait and switch is bad for Mason, bad for community relations and shows disrespect towards the citizens of Mason by County and FCPD leadership.

  2. We love Officer Azcarate! He ws instrumental in preventing gang violence from escalating in Fairfax, and has awesome community outreach. I know him as a fellow parent & a speaker at my kids' Scout troop meetings.