A police officer in northern Virginia was terminated on Thursday for shooting and killing a man who was suspected of stealing sunglasses from a busy mall. As well as the written report, police also released video footage of the fatal incident.
At the news conference where he made the dismissal announcement, Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis also showed body camera footage of the February 22 shooting of Timothy McCree Johnson outside Tysons Corner Center.
Davis claims that two officers who pursued Johnson that night opened fire. Both of the officers involved have been removed from active duty as the inquiry proceeds, but the one who fired the deadly shot into his chest has been fired.
Sgt. Wesley Shifflett was terminated because he “failed to live up to the expectations of our agency, particularly use of force policies,” as stated by Davis. Attorney Caleb Kershner said his client Shifflett would be appealing his dismissal and hoped to be exonerated.
According to him, Shifflett did what he was taught to do in the face of imminent danger to his life: he used deadly force. Kershner claimed that Shifflett had seen Johnson reach for his waistband as if he were reaching for a weapon.
“You have to make a split-second decision, and it’s a life-or-death split-second decision,” Kershner said. Less than two minutes into the video, the officers can be seen chasing the suspect out of the mall, across the street, and into the woods.
At Thursday’s press conference, police aired a slowed-down version of the footage in which two shots can be heard being fired after an officer has screamed “get on the ground” but before the officer has yelled “stop reaching.”
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A third gunfire is also heard. Once they leave the shopping center, the lighting in the video decreases significantly, making it difficult to make out Johnson’s features. During their debriefing after the shooting, Shifflett is heard saying, “continually reaching in his waistband” and “Let me see your hands.”
This is captured on video from the body camera and can be seen by the other officer. However, that order is silent on the recording. Kershner, the attorney, said that the officer may not have precisely recollected exactly which commands he had given Johnson, but the video demonstrates that Johnson was not obeying.
“There’s no question that he (Johnson) was not following commands,” Kershner said. Johnson was shot in a wooded area, and despite police efforts, no weapon was found.
“More often than not the police body camera footage speaks for itself,” Davis said.
“This time, it does not.” Davis did not elaborate on his thoughts on how the police should have responded, citing the ongoing investigations as his reason. An apparent video of Johnson stealing two pairs of sunglasses from a Nordstrom department store and setting off alarms as he left the store was also released by the police.
Security at the department store alerted the officers, who were tasked to monitor the mall. Johnson’s family was shown the video on Wednesday, a day ahead of it public release. Family attorney Carl Crews saw it and said that Johnson was “an execution by a Fairfax County police officer.”
On Thursday, he assured everyone that the family’s quest for justice would continue. “The administrative separation of the officer by Chief Davis corroborates what I saw in footage which was several violations of police procedures. However, Justice for Timothy continues (because) no one has been charged with his murder,” he said.
Melissa Johnson, Johnson’s mother, said on Wednesday that Davis “painted a negative half-truth about our son” when he described her son as having a “significant violent criminal history” after the shooting. According to the court records, Johnson did not have any prior convictions in Fairfax County.
Maryland and the District of Columbia had both brought charges of assault and gun possession against him. At a press conference on Thursday, Davis expressed regret for his comments about Johnson on the night of the shooting.
His goal, he explained, was to head off reporters’ inquiries into Johnson’s possible criminal past. “I should have answered it with much greater sensitivity than I did,” he said. Davis said the department has gone back through eight years of records, and this is the only time officers fired rounds at a suspect during a foot chase.
He has expressed an interest in drafting regulations for officers’ actions during a foot pursuit, with consideration given to the training they have already received. Only 18 out of the thousands of police departments in the United States have such a policy, according to his preliminary research.
“There is no shining best practice out there,” he said. The police have not been accused of any wrongdoing. DA Steve Descano of Fairfax County has stated that he is currently reviewing the case and will make a decision in the coming weeks.
Jeff McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, issued a statement on Thursday calling the video “disturbing to say the least.”
“Under no circumstances should suspicion of shoplifting alone lead to the tragic loss of human life,” McKay said.
The release of the video coincides with the indictment of ten people for second-degree murder in the death of a Black inmate with mental health issues who was being held in Henrico County, Virginia, near Richmond.
Video released on Tuesday in the case of Irvo Otieno, who died while being transferred to a state hospital, shows deputies and workers surrounding and pinning Otieno to the floor.
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