Leaders of a grassroots organization dedicated to holding police accountable for their actions have asked city authorities to let outside law enforcement officials investigate the February shooting death of Taft Sellers — to little avail.
While Chief Earl Cook and Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Sengel respectfully declined the request, arguing that their respective agencies were perfectly capable of handling the investigation, we believe the idea has merit and deserves a second look.
Sellers, a city resident, died after an armed confrontation with police officers in the West End, but not much else about the incident has been made public. The details will be revealed in good time, officials have said. If the officers are cleared of wrongdoing, the basic facts will be released in a hefty report on the incident. If not, they will come out during subsequent criminal proceedings.
We agree the police department and commonwealth’s attorney’s office can handle the investigation. They are, after all, professional investigators.
And, to be clear, we’re not suggesting our local law enforcement officials might be tempted to cover up any wrongdoing. Still, by eschewing calls to bring in an independent set of eyes, they open themselves up to that perception.
Changing course and bringing in a third party would clear the air of any ethical questions and put to rest any accusations of a cover-up. And there already are rumors to that effect circulating in the community. While the presence of conspiracy theories is expected in the aftermath of such an incident — especially given the few facts released thus far — local officials should be extremely concerned by their existence.
Frankly, they ought to be doing everything in their power to nip them in the bud.
And what’s the harm in bringing in the state police or a special prosecutor? If the officers involved acted appropriately, that will come out whether an outside agency or local investigators review the details of the incident.
Bringing in outside help is hardly a revolutionary idea, whether for police-involved deaths or other potential internal problems. Presented with evidence of employees flouting policies regulating the school district’s capital improvement budget, Superintendent Morton Sherman quickly hired an independent auditor to investigate. It was the right move — a bright spot in an otherwise dark time for the district.
Yes, the police department did notify the Justice Department, giving it the opportunity to review the Sellers case, but that’s not the same as asking for an independent investigation.
We tend to agree with the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, the group behind the request, that someone with fresh eyes should review the shooting. It’s in the best interests of residents and law enforcement officials.