Justice system reform will improve police accountability

As we work to improve accountability across the criminal justice system, we need relentless elected leaders who will fight for that change

May 24, 2023 12:09 am

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By Alan Davis

When a grand jury declined to indict the officer who shot Timothy Johnson last month, the decision was disappointing, but not necessarily surprising.

As a retired senior law enforcement officer who’s spent the last decade exploring issues in policing, I know that more than individual bad actors, it is often the broader justice system that impedes accountability. That’s why it’s critical to have independent actors in our justice system, like Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano, who are willing to push through institutional hurdles to pursue just outcomes. 

Over the last decade, fewer than 2% of killings by police nationwide have resulted in an officer being charged with a crime – and even fewer result in a conviction, according to Mapping Police Violence. 

We see the same trend here in Northern Virginia; only once in Fairfax’s history has a police officer been charged for killing someone while on duty. After the 2015 killing of John Geer, Descano served on the inaugural Fairfax Police Civilian Review Panel. The shooting officer’s defense attorney in that case was Ed Nuttall,who’s now running to unseat Descano as the head of the criminal justice system. 

Descano’s request to empanel a special grand jury to investigate the fatal shooting of Johnson was approved a few weeks ago. The second jury will have the opportunity to indict the officer who shot Johnson; that opportunity wouldn’t exist without the commonwealth attorney’s persistence in seeking justice. 

I’ve spent over 30 years in law enforcement and believe “superior officers” are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those situations where they might have to rely on their superior skills, but the recent developments in the Johnson case illustrate that even after a national reckoning on police use-of-force issues, most criminal justice systems are still structured to protect bad actors. As we work to improve accountability across the system, we need relentless elected leaders who will fight for that change. 

Alan Davis is a 20-year retired member of the New York City Police Department, former federal correction officer, and U.S. State Department police advisor assigned to support democratic policing policies abroad. He has a baccalaureate degree in Social and Criminal Justice from Ashford University and a Master’s degree in Restorative Justice Practices from the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

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