Alexandria police officers cleared in shooting death of city man

By Derrick Perkins

Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Sengel cleared police officers of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Taft Sellers during an armed confrontation in February.

Sengel released his findings Monday after a months long investigation into the fatal standoff on the 3400 block of Duke Street. His report, which concluded officers shot the 30-year-old former Marine and city resident in self-defense, revealed new details about the February 18 shooting.

The responding officers’ accounts of the deadly stand off — summarized in Sengel’s report — paint a vivid picture of the minutes leading up to Sellers’ death.

“A police-involved shooting is a traumatic experience for everyone involved, but I can assure you no police officer ever wants to be put in that situation where the outcome ends the life of a human being,” Police Chief Earl Cook told reporters earlier this year.

DEADLY CONFRONTATION

Sellers, a T.C. Williams graduate, was visiting his grandmother and sister, who called police after the two argued, authorities said. She told police Sellers was armed, but said he had not threatened to use his Glock semi-automatic.

The first officer on the scene – not far from the department’s massive headquarters complex on Wheeler Avenue – spoke with Sellers, who was not wielding a firearm, in an open-air apartment complex stairwell.

But he retreated after the former military man put a hand behind his back and took a “shooting stance.” As other officers arrived, Sellers ducked behind the stairwell wall.

Officers unsuccessfully negotiated with Sellers for several minutes – according to their accounts and witness statements – urging him to surrender his weapon and give up. Ignoring their overtures, he emerged several minutes later, his handgun drawn and aimed at the lawmen.

Gunfire erupted.

Though the exact order of shots remains murky, an officer armed with a shotgun opened fire while another moved in with a Bushmaster M4 rifle. Five other officers, several thinking Sellers was returning fire, took aim with their handguns.

The shooting lasted about 10 seconds. When it ended, the seven officers had fired a combined 37 shots, striking Sellers five times in his head and abdomen. An autopsy later confirmed he died from multiple gunshot wounds, one from the shotgun and the others from the M4 rifle.

Authorities do not believe Sellers fired a single shot with his handgun.

LETHAL FORCE JUSTIFIED

Because Sellers emerged with a gun drawn and pointed it at the lawmen, they were justified in shooting him in self-defense, according to Sengel. Sellers posed an imminent threat to their lives and safety and the officers were authorized to use deadly force to protect themselves.

It was Sellers, not the police, who dictated the outcome, Sengel concluded.

“Had Sellers continued to act in a non-threatening manner and not pointed his weapon at the officers, he would not have been shot,” he wrote. “To suggest that officers should have continued to attempt to engage Sellers in conversation at that moment when he aimed his weapon at them is simply nonsensical.”

Using non-lethal methods, like a Taser, would have put officers in Sellers’ line of fire. An officer equipped with what’s called Sage Less Lethal Munitions – rubber bullets or beanbag rounds, for example – was called to the scene, but did not arrive in time.

Even if that officer were on the scene, Sengel argued, the distance between the police and Sellers would have prevented him from firing the less lethal rounds.

“Use of less than lethal force in this case was not legally required or practically feasible,” he wrote.

As for Sellers’ state of mind, Sengel said authorities do not have a motive for his actions, but they did not rule out what is commonly known as “suicide by cop.” Friends said the one-time Marine had been struggling with depression and sent out an email alluding to suicide shortly before the standoff.

“It is certainly reasonable, based on his military background, to assume that Sellers understood the likely outcome of pointing a firearm at armed officers,” Sengel wrote.

A toxicology report done on Sellers’ body found no alcohol or drugs in his system except for phenytoin, which was prescribed to the local man. The drug is used to treat seizures, according to the National Institutes of Health.

FULL DISCLOSURE

At a press conference Monday, Sengel said the decision to make public his report in its entirety was designed to curtail rumors and innuendo.

“I think it’s important for the public to understand what happened,” he told reporters outside of the city courthouse.

The investigation into Sellers’ death – and the lack of details in the months after – had drawn scrutiny from friends, a police accountability group and local media. In his report, Sengel defended handling the matter internally instead of handing it over to the state police or a special prosecutor, as at least one group called for.

“Invariably, public scrutiny of any police shooting raises the question of whether any police department can conduct an objective investigation into the conduct of its own officers,” he wrote. “I have revisited the police inquiry independently, and tested it by consultation with independent experts and by re-interviewing some witnesses myself.”

While Sengel’s investigation cleared the officers involved of potential criminal charges, there may be further repercussions from the shooting. A department inquiry into the incident could result in disciplinary action or future training.

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