A Northern Virginia police officer was fired March 23 after fatally shooting a man last month who had allegedly stolen two pairs of sunglasses from a busy shopping mall. Police also released video of the deadly encounter.
Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis announced the dismissal at a press conference where he also played body camera footage showing the shooting of Timothy McCree Johnson outside Tysons Corner Center on Feb. 22.
Two officers who chased Johnson that night fired their weapons, Davis said. The one who fired the fatal round into his chest has been dismissed from the department, and the other officer remains on restricted duty as the investigation continues.
The officer who was fired, Sgt. Wesley Shifflett, exhibited “a failure to live up to the expectations of our agency, in particular use of force policies,” Davis said.
Caleb Kershner, an attorney for Shifflett, said his client will appeal his dismissal and expects to be exonerated. He said Shifflett acted as he was trained to do, using lethal force if he has a reasonable belief his life is in danger. Kershner said Shifflett saw Johnson reaching for his waistband as though reaching for a weapon.
“You have to make a split-second decision, and it’s a life-or-death split-second decision,” Kershner said.
The video itself shows a nighttime chase that lasted less than two minutes, with the officers running after him out of the mall, through a parking garage, across a street and into a wooded area. In a slow-motion version of the video that police played at the March 23 press conference, it sounds as though two shots were fired after an officer yelled “get on the ground” but just before shouting “stop reaching.” A third shot is also heard. The video is dimly lit and it is difficult to see Johnson in any detail once they are out of the mall.
After the shooting, the body camera video records Shifflett telling another officer that he saw Johnson “continually reaching in his waistband” and that he told Johnson, “Let me see your hands.” But that command cannot be heard on the video.
Kershner, the attorney, said that the officer may not have accurately recollected exactly which commands he had given Johnson, but the video shows that Johnson was not complying.
“There’s no question that he (Johnson) was not following commands,” Kershner said.
Police searched for a weapon in the wooded area where Johnson was shot, but no weapon was ever recovered.
“More often than not the police body camera footage speaks for itself,” Davis said. “This time, it does not.”
Davis declined to comment in detail about how he believes the officers should have responded, citing the ongoing investigations.
Police also released video that seemed to show Johnson taking two pair of sunglasses from a Nordstrom department store, and setting off alarms as he left the store. Security at the department store alerted the officers, who were assigned to patrol the mall.
Johnson’s family was shown the video on March 22, a day ahead of it public release. After viewing it, family attorney Carl Crews called Johnson’s death “an execution by a Fairfax County police officer.”
On March 23, he said the family will continue to seek justice.
“The administrative separation of the officer by Chief Davis corroborates what I saw in footage which was several violations of police procedures. However, Justice for Timothy continues (because) no one has been charged with his murder,” he said.
Johnson’s mother, Melissa Johnson, on March 22 said Davis “painted a negative half-truth about our son” when he described Johnson immediately after the shooting as someone with a “significant violent criminal history.”
Johnson had no criminal record in Fairfax County, court records show. He did have assault and gun convictions against him in Maryland and the District of Columbia.
At the March 23 press conference, Davis apologized for how he characterized Johnson the night of the shooting. He said he was trying to anticipate reporters’ questions about whether Johnson had a criminal history.
“I should have answered it with much greater sensitivity than I did,” he said.
Davis said the agency has gone back through eight years of records, and this is the only time officers fired shots at a suspect during a foot chase. He said he wants to develop a policy specific to officer conduct during a foot chase that takes into account the training they already receive. Preliminary research shows that only 18 police departments across the country have such a policy in place, he said.
“There is no shining best practice out there,” he said.
No charges have been filed against the officers. Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano has said he is reviewing the case and will make a decision in the coming weeks.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay issued a statement March 23 calling the video “disturbing to say the least.”
“Under no circumstances should suspicion of shoplifting alone lead to the tragic loss of human life,” McKay said.
The video’s release comes as seven Virginia sheriff’s deputies in Henrico County, near Richmond, and three hospital workers have been charged with second-degree murder in the death of a Black inmate with mental-health issues. Irvo Otieno died while being transferred to a state hospital; video released March 21 in Otieno’s case shows the deputies and workers surrounding and pinning Otieno to the floor.
-MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press