By Derrick Perkins
Former Washington police detective Nicholas Beltrante believes local authorities made a mistake rejecting his calls to bring in outsiders to review the shooting death of Taft Sellers.
Beltrante is executive director of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a group that — in separate letters — recently asked Chief Earl Cook and Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Sengel to turn over their investigations into the Presidents Day shooting. He urged Cook to bring in the Virginia State Police while petitioning Sengel to appoint a special prosecutor and convene a special grand jury.
Neither seems likely at this point, though officials did notify the Justice Department in the wake of the shooting, giving federal authorities the chance to review the incident.
“Please be assured that the Alexandria Police Department values human life above all else and that a thorough investigation of the facts surrounding the death of Mr. Sellers is being conducted,” Cook wrote back.
“I assure you that this matter will be thoroughly and appropriately investigated,” Sengel replied. “It has always been my practice to conduct independent inquiry into any instance of use of deadly force by the Alexandria Police Department and to release the results of such inquiry to the public.”
Both responses came as a surprise to Beltrante, who thought the two city agencies would welcome the chance to turn the investigation over to a third party. Doing so would clear the air of any ethical questions, he said.
“It’s not uncommon for this to happen, and it gives the people a voice rather than just keeping it within the police department and the commonwealth’s attorney in that jurisdiction, because in most cases, nothing ends up being done,” Beltrante said.
But Sellers’ death isn’t Sengel’s first investigation into a police-involved shooting. He’s confident his office will handle the probe properly.
“Obviously, we work with the police department, but I think we’re perfectly capable of taking an objective view of this case,” he said.
‘They could have used other means’
Troubled by the 2009 death of David Masters at the hands of Fairfax County police officers, Beltrante formed the coalition a few months later. Since then the former District cop has lobbied county officials to form an oversight body to review police actions and examined subsequent shooting incidents across the commonwealth.
Though he admits there’s little known about Sellers’ death, which is part of the reason he’s pushing for an independent investigation, the February shooting struck him as problematic.
Sellers, 30, died after allegedly confronting police officers with a firearm on the 3400 block of Duke St. Local law enforcement officials made few other details about the incident public.
Despite the dearth of information, Beltrante is confident the situation could have been handled better. It needn’t have ended with Sellers’ death, he said.
“They could have used other means: stun gun, Tasers or even just conversed with the guy. I think they were just hasty in their actions,” Beltrante said. “No. 1 we’re very concerned over the lack of accountability and transparency when it comes to instances of this type — they release so little information and we just don’t like it. … From what I see and what little information was released, it appears [that] this was a matter that could have been handled in a better manner.”
Though it’s too soon to know whether Beltrante is right, Sengel said his office’s investigation would end in one of two ways: a hefty report on the incident or a criminal trial.
“That’s the process that’s in place,” Sengel said. “I think that’s proven to be an effective method for dealing with these cases.”
Following Culpeper’s lead
Sengel’s review of the incident will begin after police hand over the results of the department’s internal investigation, which is expected to happen as soon as this week.
But don’t expect information immediately, he said. Interviewing the officers involved — all on paid administrative leave pending the outcome — and additional lab work could stretch the investigation out.
As for a special prosecutor, Sengel said it might be warranted if an individual connected to the office, like an employee or personal friend of the commonwealth’s attorney, was charged with a crime. A special grand jury might be necessary if witnesses refused to cooperate with authorities, he said, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Sellers’ death.
“It’s my intention to proceed with [the investigation] within the office,” Sengel said.
Beltrante believes Port City officials need to learn from Culpeper’s example. When an officer shot and killed Patricia Cook, a homemaker and Sunday school teacher, in February 2012, authorities in the small Virginia town turned to the state police for help.
That officer, Daniel Harmon-Wright, was indicted by a special grand jury and later found guilty of voluntary manslaughter — among other charges stemming from the shooting — in January.
While the two shooting deaths share few details other than police involvement, Beltrante believes Sellers’ death warrants the same level of scrutiny.
“We feel it’s so questionable it would be better if it were sent to a special grand jury,” he said.