Civilian Panel Targets Abuse by Fairfax County Police

By Jim O’Connell:

Steve Descano goes out night after night looking for trouble.

Not trying to start some, he’s trying to resolve it. Descano is a member of the Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel, which reviews complaints of abuse or unprofessional conduct by officers.

With 1,400 officers in a county of more than a million people where more than 160 languages are spoken, there are plenty of possibilities for misunderstanding. But since the panel just began work in February of last year, many people aren’t aware they have somewhere to take their complaints.

“I personally took on a mission to help get the word out,” Descano said. “So I’ve been going around to groups to talk about the panel.”

The panel has its limitations. First, it does not handle cases that involve shootings — these are handled by a special Police Auditor. Also, it can recommend but not order the police to change their procedures.  

The panel’s benefits and limits were on display in its first case. The panel found that a police officer had acted wrongly by ignoring a subpoena and skipping a trial date. Without the officer’s testimony, the complainant lost her civil case. The panel was able to confirm that measures were taken to prevent a recurrence. But the verdict stood, and the woman’s loss in the case went uncompensated.

Still, pointed out Descano, the change in protocol may preclude other cases from going off the rails in the future.

“Inequities in the criminal justice system create inequities in our communities,” he said, “but the panel’s work is a big step forward in trying to represent the community. We have the ability to make policy and procedural recommendations and that’s where we see an avenue for systemic change, as opposed to one offs.”

In his previous career as a federal prosecutor, Descano saw first hand the importance of building trust between the police and the community. Now he is far from that environment and works as the chief operating officer of a health services company for autistic children. But as the father of a six-year-old girl, he sees the need just as clearly. He wants his daughter to grow up in world where the police and the community don’t see each other as enemies.

Descano and the eight other members of the panel were selected for two-year terms by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors from among 140 applicants. Descano was nominated by the NAACP. He is a member of the Braddock District Democratic Committee and won the  Mason District Democratic Committee Senator Charles S. Robb Young Leaders Award in 2016, when he lived in that district. The panel itself is non-partisan.

More information about the panel including a complaint form to initiate a review is available here.

Photo above story is of Steve Descano (center) and other members of the Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel. / Photo by Elie Ashford.

 

Jim O’Connell worked for 33 years as a reporter and editor before retiring in 2016.

1 thought on “Civilian Panel Targets Abuse by Fairfax County Police

  1. Steve Descano came out to my Reston church to talk about the Civilian Review Panel, making sure we know about this means of citizen oversight of our local law enforcement. He stayed to answer every question we had. I admire his commitment to transparency and to making our criminal justice system more responsive to the community.

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