By Erich Wagner (File photo)
The man whom police officers shot dead during a February standoff had a history of mental health issues and was between depression medications when the fatal confrontation occurred.
The troubled mental state of Taft Sellers came into focus as Lt. Monica Lisle, commander of internal investigations for the Alexandria Police Department, laid out the findings from her review of the incident during a public meeting with the city human rights commission October 3.
Four days prior to the police shooting, Sellers, a 30-year-old former Marine, was taken off his depression medication in favor of a new prescription, Lisle said. But his new drug regimen, which was mail-ordered, had not yet arrived.
“It’s important to remember that officers were unaware of his history of depression [during the standoff],” she said.
And even if they had that information, officials stressed that officers likely would have had to shoot Sellers the moment he pointed his weapon at them.
Authorities negotiated with the T.C. Williams graduate for 11 minutes — without a response — before he aimed a Glock 19 handgun at them, and they opened fire.
In all, officers fired 37 shots, hitting Sellers five times.
Lisle said public safety officials received another ill-timed warning about Sellers’ condition in the form of an emergency call. A friend of Sellers called 911, having received his emailed suicide note, just 90 seconds before the shooting.
“There just was not enough time to get the information to the officers,” she said.
Commission members, though, questioned the tactics and positioning of officers, asking if there was any way that Sellers’ life could have been spared.
“What concerns me … is did the officers put themselves in that position unnecessarily,” said commissioner Matt Harris. “I’ve seen in other cases officers taking a broader swath and spread out along a larger perimeter, so there’s not the same imminent fear for one’s safety.”
But Police Chief Earl Cook said setting up for a long-range barricade situation requires time — a commodity the officers lacked.
“The first thing you have to do is contain the scene and hold your position,” Cook said. “The positioning may not have been optimal, but there was no time to back up into a better position.”
Commissioner Monika Jones wondered when police called for backup in the form of a negotiator.
“Did someone make a call and say, ‘He’s not responding’?” Jones said. “Did that change the mindset?”
Lisle said a hostage negotiator did make it to the scene but was unable to set up a bullhorn and engage Sellers before he aimed his weapon at officers.
But the official explanation did little to assuage Vickie Sellers, the mother of Taft Sellers. She made an impassioned plea for officials to re-examine the incident.
Vickie Sellers arrived at the scene shortly before the shootout in February. She said the last thing that she saw before being pulled away by officers — who were concerned for her safety — was her son with his gun pointing downward, not out at the lawmen.
“He was on his knees, facing out from the stairwell,” she said. “I called to him, and he looked up and looked at me and pointed his gun down to the ground. I know what I saw.”
Deputy Chief Cleveland Spruill said it was shortly after that moment that Taft Sellers made an aggressive movement: He pointed the Glock at an officer wielding an M4 rifle.
Spruill said that officer remains affected by the incident.
“He was torn apart with it,” Spruill said. “[The officer said,] ‘I begged, I pleaded with the guy that I was here to help.’ For eight minutes he’s begging with [Sellers] not to do anything.
“Nobody, none of us wanted to see Taft Sellers dead.”