Analysis

In Fairfax, Va., a different, no-less-scary police shooting

Eighteen months ago, a Virginia man was shot by police while standing at his suburban front door with his hands raised. The facts are clear and barely in dispute, but no one seems to want to do anything about it, Neil Macdonald reports.

18 months ago John Geer was shot by police while standing at his front door with his hands raised

John Geer, shown here in a still from a cellphone video standing at the front door of his townhouse in August 2013 as police responded to a complaint from his girlfriend. It was an almost 30-minute conversation in the doorway before one of the officers shot him dead. (CBS)

White privilege didn't protect John Geer.

That's not to say he didn't have it. As a middle-class kitchen designer living in the pleasant Washington suburb of Fairfax, Va., he had nothing whatsoever in common with the impoverished black men killed by police in Missouri and Brooklyn last year.

Those deaths triggered riots, marches and demonstrations across America, and interventions by the White House.

But Geer, pierced 18 months ago by a police bullet as he stood inside the screen door of his own home, his hands raised, begging not to be shot, simply disappeared into the emotional mixing bowl of American news and political priorities.

That should not have happened. The killing of John Geer is probably the clearest and most compelling example of what amounts to police impunity in recent American history.

He committed no crime the day he was killed. Even the officer who shot him acknowledges that. There was no struggle. The details are not murky.

But because no one was marching in the streets on behalf of John Geer, because he was absent from national headlines, the system was able to make his outrageous death go away by the simple expedient of doing nothing and refusing to discuss it.

Here are the facts:

In August 2013, Geer's common law wife, who was breaking up with him and moving out, called police to report he was angrily throwing her possessions onto his front lawn.

Asked whether Geer had weapons, the woman answered yes, but they were legally owned and secured. No, he hadn't been drinking.

John Geer, 46, was fatally shot by police in August 2013 in an unusual confrontation for which no charges have been laid. His family has launched a suit for wrongful death. (Jeff Stewart/Washington Post)

Two squad cars — four officers —  initially responded. Geer, on seeing them, retreated into his home, refusing to answer questions.

A few minutes later, Officer Rodney Barnes, a trained police negotiator, arrived, and as the four other policemen stood close behind him with weapons drawn, he began trying to coax John Geer out onto the porch.

Barnes would later recall that Geer was polite, but reluctant to leave his home, saying repeatedly he was frightened of being killed.

He said "I don't want anybody to get hurt," the negotiator told investigators a few months later. "I don't want to get shot."

'I know I can get shot'

Barnes asked Geer if he owned a pistol. Geer said yes, and fetched it. He held it up, holstered, for Barnes to see and set it aside, raising his hands again. He offered to let Barnes come into the house and retrieve the weapon.

He asked for permission to scratch his nose, Barnes said, and did it slowly, then raised his hands again. He asked to reach into his pocket for his phone; Barnes asked him not to, and he obeyed.

"He said 'I know if I reach down or drop my hands I can get shot," Barnes told detectives later. "I said, hey, nobody's going to shoot you…"

But Geer pointed to one nearby officer in particular: Adam Torres, who kept raising his Sig Sauer pistol from the "ready" position (pointed at Geer's legs) to aim at Geer's chest.

Please ask him not to point his gun at me, Geer begged Barnes. Geer even offered to come out and be handcuffed voluntarily if Torres and the other patrolmen would agree to move "way back."

Then he asked to scratch his nose again. Barnes consented. And Torres fired.

Geer, grabbing his wound, screamed in pain and stepped back, slamming his door.

"And I'm like, who the fuck shot?" Barnes told detectives later. "I kinda got a little pissed."

Torres acknowledged it had been him, and began muttering how he was sorry, and that his wrist was hurting. Then, unbidden, he told Barnes how he'd had a fight over the phone with his wife just before arriving on the scene.

Everyone else is wrong

Asked by Barnes why he'd fired, Torres said Geer had dropped his hands to his waist suddenly, that he appeared to be going for a weapon.

"I said I didn't see that," said Barnes later. "You know, and I never took my eye off him (Geer)."

In this cellphone video, Fairfax County police stand outside John Geer's home after he had been shot by an officer and fell back into the house. The officer at left is said to be Rodney Barnes, the main negotiator. By the time police tactical forces arrived to enter the home, Geer had bled to death. (CBS)

The other three officers who'd been present told investigators the same thing. So did two civilian witnesses.

But prosecutors and police commanders and county officials buried the case.

Fairfax County's top prosecutor declared a conflict of interest and referred the shooting to federal authorities.

The police department stonewalled reporters.

Federal investigators did investigate, and have reported to the U.S. attorney in Virginia, who has done nothing.

And all this was done under a cloak of secrecy, until, earlier this month, a judge finally ordered disclosure of nearly 11,000 documents, containing interviews with nearly everyone involved.

Torres, it turns out, stuck to his story that the other four officers were wrong.

Does he regret having shot Geer? "I don't feel sorry for shooting the guy at all."

Why did he tell Barnes immediately afterward he was sorry? He was concerned about having upset Barnes by shooting, he said.

Why did he talk about his wrist hurting? He doesn't remember. Why did he immediately say he'd just had a fight with his wife? "I don't know why."

Under the radar

The judge's disclosure order has created a bizarre situation: Nearly all the available evidence, including audio of the witness statements, is now available on the Fairfax County website.

According to those official documents, the shooter — a cop with significant anger issues (he once screamed and cursed at prosecutors in open court) — is contradicted by four fellow officers and two civilian witnesses. That sort of rank-breaking is practically unheard of.

And yet there has been no judicial action, and almost no public uproar. Most politicians have remained silent. Those who have marched against police shootings in the past have been largely uninterested.

A protest at Fairfax police headquarters drew a couple of dozen people. Only the Washington Post has taken a serious interest in the case.

But the killing of John Geer should frighten everyone. It is the best example yet that while police often target minorities disproportionately, their basic and overriding demand is total and unquestioning submission to their authority.

Resist, however peacefully and even in your own home, and heaven help you, no matter what your skin colour. 

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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