Almost all major police shootings in Virginia since 2016 were ruled justified. But state’s data has big gaps.

By: - June 15, 2020 12:01 am

A police car in Richmond, Va. Police currently provide the vast majority of transports to psychiatric hospitals across Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Of the 91 police shootings that caused a death or serious injury reported in Virginia since a law passed in 2016 making those reports mandatory, only one has been ruled unjustified, according to Virginia State Police data.

That shooting happened in February 2018 when two Lynchburg police officers fired into a home at 1:30 a.m., striking the startled and unarmed homeowner, Walker Sigler, when he tried to shut the door after seeing people with guns on his porch. 

But that encounter, the only officially improper shooting from mid-2016 through 2019, didn’t show up in the yearly Crime in Virginia report the General Assembly designated as the place to track shootings involving law enforcement officers.

State Police records show the form reporting the shooting wasn’t filed with the agency until June 2019, more than a year after the incident occurred. Because the “static” Crime in Virginia report is published each spring and doesn’t include year-over-year trends on police shootings, a State Police official said, the agency doesn’t update or revise it as investigations are completed and new information comes in.

The missing Lynchburg shooting — which was covered extensively by the local media and led to misdemeanor charges being brought against the officers and a record-setting legal settlement between Sigler and the city — shows the extent of the gaps in Virginia’s process for keeping tabs on potentially lethal uses of police force.

Last year, the Lynchburg News & Advance reported that almost 30 percent of major police shootings weren’t reported to the state as required under the 2016 law.

Records still show the state has not received reporting forms for several shootings going back as far as early 2018, but the State Police began proactively including shootings that weren’t formally reported.

Though the reporting system only covers the most severe uses of force, Keon Turner, the uniform crime reporting manager for the State Police, said it’s possible some shootings may still be missing from their records almost four years after the law took effect.

While I am confident that the data reflects the number of the officer-involved shootings that resulted in serious injury or death, there’s always a possibility that we were not made aware of an incident,” Turner said.

As Virginia’s Democratic leaders promise action on police reform following the nationwide outcry over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many have said strengthening independent oversight of law enforcement is a top priority.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, one of the chief sponsors of the 2016 legislation requiring officer-involved shootings to be listed in the yearly crime report, said better data collection will be a part of that effort.

“I don’t think we should have police officers investigating themselves,” Herring said in an interview. “I think getting it out of police officers’ hands will help because I think it will help ensure that the data is collected.”

Herring said she remembered fighting an “uphill battle” to convince others that police shootings belonged in the state’s yearly crime report. Some police shootings could be a crime in and of themselves, she said, and it’s important to have a public record of the ones that were ruled justified.

The lack of comprehensive data on police shootings in Virginia mirrors deficiencies at the federal level. Since 2015, The Washington Post has maintained its own database of fatal police shootings after determining no government agency keeps reliable nationwide data.

The Crime in Virginia report, which includes racial statistics for a wide variety of other data points, also does not identify the race of people shot by police. The law doesn’t require that information to be reported.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the State Police gave the Virginia Mercury an accompanying spreadsheet with some racial data, but it only covers police shootings in 2019. For some shootings, the subject’s race was not reported.

Of the 25 major police shootings reported in 2019, nine subjects were Black, 12 were white, and four were listed as unknown.

Turner said the change in methodology was tied to the beginning of the FBI’s nationwide use of force data collection program last year, which created a new way for law enforcement agencies to voluntarily report a broader variety of data on deaths or injuries caused by police and the number of times officers fire their weapons.

The law did not change, but the portal gave agencies the opportunity to submit use of force data in addition to officer-involved shooting data in one location,” Turner said in an email.

State Police records show a few dozen major police shootings reported each year, with no dramatic spikes or declines since law enforcement agencies began reporting their shootings on a regular basis. The state saw around 300 to 350 gun-related homicides each year during the same timeframe.

The data, which do not include officer-involved shootings in 2020, show at least 33 fatalities since the law took effect. That number is also incomplete because the information entered for 2018 does not include data on whether each shooting caused a death or serious injury.

Turner said the discrepancy was the result of “staffing changes” that left the State Police department responsible for the data “unable to review these incidents in a timely manner.”

When the department moved to online data collection last year, Turner said, it allowed the state to resume tracking deaths and serious injuries.

The justified vs. unjustified distinction, Turner said, is based on whether local prosecutors determine charges are warranted against the officer or officers involved.

The shootings reported in state records show the variety of situations that can cause officers to fire their weapons.

In late May of 2019, four officers from the Virginia Beach Police Department fired their weapons in the gunbattle that ensued during the mass shooting at a local government office, taking down the shooter after he had killed 12 people.

About a year earlier, a Richmond police officer shot and killed Marcus-David Peters, an unarmed Black man who had taken off all his clothes, after he charged at the officer and threatening to kill him near a downtown interstate ramp following a car chase.

That shooting, which did not result in charges for the officer, who unsuccessfully tried to Tase Peters before shooting him, caused an outcry from Peters’ family and local activists, who said they believed Peters was suffering some sort of mental breakdown and should have been met with help, not deadly force. Since Floyd’s death, Richmond activists have renewed their push for a so-called Marcus Alert system, which would allow mental health professionals to respond to some emergency situations along with police officers. 

Hundreds of protesters marched to Richmond Police Headquarters Saturday, calling for justice and police reform after a police officer shot and killed Marcus Peters in 2018. (NBC 12)

A similar but less-high profile shooting happened last September in Richmond’s suburbs when police went to perform a welfare check on Gay Ellen Plack, a 57-year-old white woman who, according to relatives, suffered from bipolar disorder. When officers forced their way into her bedroom in Short Pump, police said Plack came at them from a bathroom swinging an ax, forcing officers to fatally shoot her, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Plack’s brother, Bob Bostock, blasted the police response, saying the officers who busted into his sister’s room were “only going to make her more afraid.”

A few months after Plack was shot, a man who allegedly stole a car and crashed it into a tree in the small Southwest Virginia town of Rural Retreat grabbed a responding deputy’s handgun during a struggle and started shooting, according to police. The deputy took cover behind his vehicle, got his rifle and shot back, hitting the suspect several times without killing him.

All those shootings were ruled justified.

After the unjustified Lynchburg shooting in 2018, the officers who fired into the home pleaded no contest to charges of reckless handling of a firearm. They were sentenced to 100 hours of community service with no jail time.

The Lynchburg Police Department also announced it would change its policies to instruct officers to no longer go onto private property just for seeing an open door. That was the reason officers approached Sigler’s home before shooting into it.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.