At a stoplight just a few miles from his home, Nicholas Beltrante, 82, puts on his flashers, opens the driver's side door to his car, gets out, and approaches my car. I roll down my window.
"You see that little memorial over there?" he asks. I nod. "That's where a Fairfax County Police officer killed Ashley McIntosh." He starts to offer more detail, then realizes the middle of an intersection probably isn't the best place to fill me in. "I'll tell you more about it when we get to Ruby Tuesdays," he says.
Beltrante asked me to lunch (disclosure: his treat) last month after seeing a column I wrote on the striking lack of transparency among Northern Virginia's three largest police departments. He wanted to discuss his new organization, the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability (VCCPA), which he says he started in order to fight what he calls the "decades of corruption and secrecy at the police department here in Fairfax County."
In addition to passion, Beltrante brings some gravitas to the project. He points to his "World War II Veteran" license plate. Beltrante served as a Navy medic. "People still come up and thank me," he says, referring to the license plate. "Always makes my day." Beltrante worked for the D.C. Metro police department for 14 years, retiring with the rank of sergeant detective. He then opened a private detective agency, which he ran for 30 years. The Democratic National Committee hired his agency to sweep their office for bugs after the Watergrate break-in. (Beltrante met his wife Patricia—to whom he's been married for 35 years—when she came to the agency with suspicions that her then-husband was cheating. He was.)
Ashley McIntosh was killed in February 2008 when Fairfax County Police Officer Amanda Perry, responding to a petty theft at a convenience store, sped through an intersection without sounding her siren, striking McIntosh's car. Perry was charged with reckless driving, the first time in decades an on-duty Fairfax County cop was charged with a crime. A judge later dismissed the charge, though Perry was ultimately discharged from the force for falsifying time sheets.
"They finally settled with the family in February," Beltrante says. "$1.5 million. That's $1.5 million taxpayers have to pay because Fairfax can't keep its police officers accountable."
Beltrante emphasizes that it isn't the mistakes but the lack of accountability that got him agitated enough to start his organization. "You have this David Masters who was killed last year," he says, referring to another incident in which a Fairfax officer shot an unarmed man along the same highway. "They won't even release the police officer's name. They won't even release the report. We're just supposed to trust them when they say that shooting was justified. I've worked in government. You don't keep the government accountable by shielding the people who work for it. There's this perception in some departments that officers are above the law."
Beltrante recently received some assistance to get his website up and running. But for the first several months of its existence, he ran the VCCPA from a typewriter, fax machine, and telephone in his home. "The phone rings all the time," he says. "There are more than enough complaints to keep me busy."
He then rattles off stories. There's the NAACP complaint about Randall Leroy Rollins, a black man killed by Fairfax police in 2007 during a drug sting. Police say Rollins reached for a gun. Witness accounts differ from police accounts. More disturbing, Rollins' family says when his body was delivered to them, his testicles had been removed. (Rollins was with a white woman at the time of the sting.)
There's Sal Culosi, the Fairfax optometrist killed during a 2006 botched SWAT raid on his home. Culosi was suspected of wagering on college football games with friends. Then there's Ian Smith, a mentally-ill man shot by Fairfax police just this year after a tactical team entered his home and he brandished a plastic BB pistol.
Beltrante acknowledges that the actions of the police may have been justified in some of these incidents. "The problem is that they refuse to share any information. Not with the press, not with the victims' families. Their transparency policy is that there's no transparency. And I find that inexcusable."
Beltrante eventually wants to start chapters of his organization in Richmond, Hampton Roads, and other cities across Virginia. First, however, he wants Fairfax to establish a formal civilian review board to oversee the police department. It's one of the largest police departments in the country without a citizen oversight board. Beltrante also wants to challenge Virginia's open records law, or at least the way the police departments in Alexandria, Fairfax County, and Arlington have interpreted it, which is that it gives them carte blanche to turn down any and all information requests.
"I've already filed the open records request for the report and the name of the police officer who shot David Masters," Beltrante says. "They turned me down, as I expected they would. We hope to work with the ACLU to either challenge the law in court, or get the legislature to change it. Think about that. An officer shoots and kills an unarmed man and we're not permitted to even know the officer's name. I find that offensive as a former police officer, as a veteran, and just as someone who happens to live in Fairfax County."
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.
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