Fairfax County police more likely to draw weapon on Black civilians than white civilians, study says

A police use-of-force study commissioned by Fairfax County revealed that officers use force too often and more than should be expected against both Black and white civilians.

Findings and recommendations of the study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas at San Antonio were presented at the county’s Board of Supervisors public safety committee meeting yesterday (June 29).

The study dove into the 1,360 use-of-force cases involving the Fairfax County Police Department over a three-year period from January 2016 to December 2018.

About 42% of cases were directed at those who are Black, 38% to those who are white. Hispanic and Asian civilians comprised 16% and 3% of such cases, respectively.

Additionally, Black civilians were 1.8 times more likely to have a weapon, such as a taser or firearm, pointed at them by police.

Some of the findings surprised the researchers. For example, there was a higher level of use of force cases directed at those who are white than perhaps expected, and generally, police used force against Hispanic civilians less frequently than they predicted..

“It’s a little bit unusual to findings like that, in my experience,” said University of Texas professor Michael R. Smith, one of the researchers presenting the study. “But those are what they were here in Fairfax County.”

For Black people, who make up about 10.6% of Fairfax County’s population, force rates did exceed proportional rates in most categories — disparities that Smith noted were expected.

Some of the disparities can be tracked to specific district stations as well.

Force used against Black civilians happened at higher rates in the Mount Vernon District as well as in  Franconia, McLean, and West Springfield.

Also, worth noting is that while use of force rates against Asian civilians, who now compose 20% of the county’s population, was overall lower across the county than other racial groups, it exceeded proportional benchmarks in Reston, Fair Oaks, West Springfield, and Mount Vernon.

Men are also much more likely to have more severe force used against them than women, which the researchers said was not uncommon.

A data point that roiled some county board members was if pointing a weapon (firearm or taser) constituted a Level 1 or more severe Level 3 use of force.

For the purposes of the study and after consulting with FCPD, researchers admitted they knocked down the severity of pointing a weapon, which altered the data.

“After some preliminary discussions with senior leadership of the police department, we re-coded the pointing of a weapon — typically a taser or a firearm — to a level one,” Smith said. “This showed…the disparity in force against African-Americans was largely [having to do with] the pointing of the weapon.”

The data revealed that Black civilians were close to nearly two times more likely to have a weapon pointed at them than white civilians.

“These coding decisions matter. It’s a conceptual question,” said Smith. “Police departments around the country and their communities are wrestling with this right now…How serious is it to point a weapon at someone?”

During the question and answer period, Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn made it clear that the re-coding of data didn’t sit well with him. After confirming that the firearms officers carry are loaded, Alcorn said he believed having a loaded weapon pointed at someone should be considered a severe use of force.

“I think…that’s definitely an L3 and not an L1,” he said. “Restraint, soft-hand control does not involve the potential use of deadly force.”

Based on their findings, the researchers made a number of recommendations to the public safety committe, including the need to collect more specific data around the circumstances for when force is used to more specifically capture what led up to the use of force.

In terms of policy, they also recommended further defining “de-escalation” to mean that officers only use the minimum amount of force reasonably needed in a situation. For instance, they suggested that deadly force should only be used in a situation involving a fleeing felon when the suspect poses a risk of deadly or serious injury to the officers or others.

“It’s unfortunate that sometimes people do resist arrest and force is required,” said Smith. “The question is what level of force?”

With training and organizational recommendations, the report suggests increasing training related to de-escalation, adopting the ICAT training guide, and having collaborative responders on calls that involve behavioral health issues and those with disabilities.

The researchers also suggested rotating officers out of high crime patrol areas and district stations on a regular basis.

“When you have routine and repeat exposure to trauma in situations in high-risk communities, there’s a desensitization for officers,” said Robin Engel, a researcher from the University of Cincinnati also involved in the study. “They may not be responding in the same ways we would like…that may lack some kind of empathy.”

At the end of the researchers’ presentation, Chief Kevin Davis was given a chance to respond. It was just two months ago that Davis was hired as the county’s new police chief and faced questions from the community about his own past excessive uses of force.

He said the police department is already working on some of the recommendations, including gathering more specific data, providing implicit bias training, setting up a performance review board, and implementing the ICAT, which he noted set to come by the end of the year.

Davis also said he believes at least a third of the use-of-force cases in the county involved the pointing of a firearm at an individual, asking rhetorically, “Why is that happening and what can we do to reduce that number?”

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