After a York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office deputy discharged his firearm during a routine traffic stop, two investigations into the incident have wrapped up.
The sheriff’s office said it has concluded its internal investigation into the matter, and a criminal investigation by the Williamsburg Police Department has also finished.
At approximately 6:40 p.m. Feb. 21, the deputy initiated a traffic stop on Merrimac Trail after he saw a vehicle without its headlights on, according to a York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office news release.
The vehicle stopped 500 feet into Williamsburg city limits at the entrance of the Parkway Apartments, the release said. That part of Merrimac Trail is not well lit at night.
The deputy approached the vehicle with his firearm drawn, the driver’s door swung open and the deputy discharged the weapon, according to the release. The bullet ricocheted off the ground and hit the driver’s door. There were no injuries.
Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Shelley Ward said at no point was the firearm pointed at any of the occupants of the vehicle. The deputy remains on administrative leave with pay.
It remains unclear why the deputy’s weapon was drawn, however, Ward said because the incident was deemed accidental the sheriff’s office use of force policy did not apply.
Certain protocols must be met when a sheriff’s deputy intentionally uses his or her firearm in the line of duty, according to the sheriff’s office use of force policy.
Deputies have been under orders to avoid physical force if there are other reasonable alternatives, however, deputies have broad authority to use force based on perceived threats, according to the policy.
While a deputy’s presence alone is considered a level one use of force, verbal commands to a person are a level two use of force, the policy said.
The use of deadly force, such as the use of a firearm, is a level five use of force and should only be used in very particular circumstances including perceived imminent danger, according to the policy.
Two College of William and Mary law school students were in the car that was pulled over, according to college spokeswoman Suzanne Clavet.
“They are understandably scared and have questions,” said Sam Jones, chairman of the college emergency management team, in an email to the college’s faculty, staff and students on Feb. 22.
College officials met with the two students at the law school the day after the shooting to hear their concerns, Clavet said. Administrators also spoke to a group of students about the incident.
“The university’s focus has and remains on making sure the students involved have the support they need,” Clavet said.
No charges were pressed against the driver, according to Williamsburg Police Department spokesman John Heilman said.
The sheriff’s office initially deemed the incident an accident. The deputy’s name has been withheld, as the incident was investigated as an internal personnel matter.
The deputy’s official rank is deputy sheriff and he has five years of law enforcement experience, Ward said. He has served at the sheriff’s office for one year.
The Williamsburg Police Department investigated the incident as it occurred within city limits, according to Heilman.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia spokesman Bill Farrar praised the external criminal investigation.
“We always ask for an independent investigation,” Farrar said.
However, Farrar said he was disappointed by the sheriff’s office’s decision to withhold the name of the deputy and the body camera footage. The deputy’s vehicle did not have a dash camera.
“All that should be made public,” Farrar said. “The officer’s name should be released no later than 48 hours after the incident.”
A common refrain the ACLU hears from law enforcement, Farrar said, is information is withheld for the officer’s safety. To that, Farrar pointed out that law enforcement’s primary mission is public safety.
“They're the police, they should know how to protect someone.”
Virginia FOIA Council executive director Alan Gernhardt said the release of that information, body camera footage or even the name of the officer involved, is often made on a discretionary basis due to investigations that may or may not be occurring.
A department can choose to classify the incident as a personnel matter and never release the body camera footage or the name of the deputy, Gernhardt said.
Criminal charges could arise
On Thursday, Heilman and Ward confirmed the investigations had ended. Heilman said the Williamsburg Police Department’s findings had been given to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office.
Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth’s Attorney Nate Green said Friday afternoon he was in the final stages of writing a report on the incident.
Ward said the sheriff’s office had agreed to pay for damages to the vehicle.
In a statement, Sheriff Danny Diggs apologized and called the incident unfortunate.
“This was an unfortunate accident with no malice or ill intent toward the occupants of the vehicle,” Diggs said. “Thankfully no one was injured in this event. We understand how an accidental discharge like this can have an impact on the community, and we would like to express our sincerest apology to anyone who has been negatively impacted by this.”
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.