Watchdog group agrees Sellers’ death was justified, but calls police actions ‘excessive’

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By Derrick Perkins

Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a leading critic of the investigation into Taft Sellers’ death, announced Monday that it supports the decision to not press criminal charges against the officers involved in the shooting.

Sellers, 30, died in February after an armed confrontation with police officers on the 3400 block of Duke St. Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Sengel cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing last week, releasing a 30-page report detailing the incident and explaining his conclusions.

As soon as Sellers aimed his loaded handgun at officers, he presented a clear threat to their lives, Sengel determined. The officers, who fired 37 shots and hit Sellers five times, were justified in killing the former Marine, according to Sengel.

The coalition, led by former Washington detective Nicholas Beltrante, agreed with Sengel’s findings in a statement released Monday morning.

“The [coalition] believes there was overwhelming evidence provided to Sengel that Sellers aimed his gun at officers, who reasonably feared for their safety and fired in self-defense,” the group wrote, thanking Sengel for making his report public.

But the coalition criticized the officers involved for their individual actions, calling their response to Sellers — who did not fire his weapon — “excessive, unnecessary and unreasonable under the circumstances.”

Citing its examination of the scene, the group wrote: “Bullet holes were visible many feet away from where Sellers was standing. This is clear evidence there was the reckless firing of weapons by some of the officers on the scene.”

Sengel preemptively addressed the criticism of excessive force in his report and in interviews with reporters after its release. While 37 shots were fired in a 10-second span, the officers could not know exactly what their colleagues were up to and act simultaneously in a high-stress situation. They must be judged individually, he argued.

While the officers have been absolved of any criminal charges, the police department has launched an internal investigation. The focus will be on whether they followed agency guidelines, said Lt. Mark Bergin, a department spokesman.

“We have our own internal policies and procedures that are completely separate from criminal law,” he said. “Without going through the thousands of pages [of policies], we look at what the officers did and make sure that they did it right by our standards.”

Bergin expects the department to announce when its internal review is finished — but likely without publicizing the results. It’s impossible to know when that might be, he said. He did not release the full names of the officers involved, though Sengel referenced them by their surnames in his report.

The police watchdog coalition, which has weighed in on several police-involved shootings since its inception following the 2009 death of David Masters in Fairfax County, has been a vocal critic of the case’s handling. Beltrante unsuccessfully pushed authorities to involve the state police — as well as to convene a special grand jury and appoint a special prosecutor — to oversee the investigation.