(Updated at 10 a.m. on 2/28/2023) The fatal police shooting of a man accused of shoplifting sunglasses at Tysons Corner Center last week has local civil rights groups questioning the Fairfax County Police Department’s commitment to enforcing its own policies.
The Fairfax County NAACP wants “an independent, transparent and comprehensive investigation” into the death of D.C. resident Timothy McCree Johnson, who was shot by officers on Wednesday (Feb. 22) during a foot chase that extended a quarter-mile from the Nordstrom where he allegedly stole a pair of designer sunglasses.
In a statement released this morning, the organization says the information shared so far about the incident suggests the shooting was unwarranted based on the FCPD’s own use-of-force policy.
“The tragic killing of Mr. Johnson reminds us once again how unjust America’s policing truly is,” Fairfax County NAACP President Michelle Leete said. “The facts as we know them signal that the officers’ actions were entirely out of step with FCPD’s Use of Force policy.”
The FCPD major crimes bureau is conducting a criminal investigation into incident, while the internal affairs bureau is tasked with leading an administrative investigation, which will be reviewed by the county’s independent police auditor.
The NAACP has set up a Gofundme to help Johnson’s family with funeral expenses.
Effective as of Aug. 12, 2022, FCPD’s policy says deadly force “shall not be used to apprehend a fleeing misdemeanant (unless they pose an imminent threat of serious physical harm or death to the officer or others).”
Notably, the parenthetical is a revision from the prior use-of-force policy that was in place in 2021.
It allows deadly force to be used to apprehend a fleeing person if certain conditions are met:
- The officer has probable cause to believe that the individual committed a felony involving violence, and
- All other means to effect an arrest have been exhausted, and
- The felon’s escape poses a significant threat of serious injury or death to the officer or others.
(Correction: This article previously cited the FCPD’s 2021 use-of-force policy as the current one but has now been corrected to reflect the most recent update.)
“Suspicion of stealing a few pairs of sunglasses without the use or possession of a weapon do not satisfy any — much less all — of [the policy’s] requirements,” the NAACP said. “Whether or not Mr. Johnson was guilty of a crime, he had the right to due process, and for the sanctity of his life to be respected by police officers to the maximum extent possible.”
The NAACP says the police department should release “unedited camera footage” of the Tysons incident, a medical examiner’s report, and the officers’ identities and complaint histories.
FCPD policies dictate that the names of officers involved in a shooting be made public within 10 days and that body-worn camera footage be released within 30 days.
Known as General Order 540, the use-of-force policy is next set to be reviewed in August 2025.
“Our policies set the standards and expectations for all our officers’ actions and help guide the department’s training curriculum,” FCPD Public Affairs Bureau Director Katherine Hayek said. “A key part of our department’s proactive strategy is our continual review and update of all our policies. We do this to ensure we are incorporating national best-practices and feedback.”
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said his office hasn’t gotten involved in the investigation yet, which is still being handled by the police department.
“My job is to keep the residents of Fairfax County safe, and that includes holding officers accountable for wrongdoing if and when it occurs,” Descano said. “While we often work closely with law enforcement, the Commonwealth’s Attorney is an independent agency, and public trust relies on me being able to assess the situation fairly and neutrally.”
Police shootings increased in 2022
At a press briefing after the shooting, Police Chief Kevin Davis said Johnson had a “violent criminal history” and was “well known” to law enforcement in the D.C. area. He also said police were looking for evidence, including a possible weapon that Johnson may have discarded, though none was found.
Johnson’s mother has disputed that characterization of her son, telling the Washington Post that she believes he was unarmed.
Even if Johnson had been armed at some point, the weapon being discarded would mean the officers weren’t in “immediate” danger when they fired their guns, notes ACLU People Power Fairfax, another local civil rights advocacy organization.
The NAACP criticized Davis for highlighting Johnson’s allegedly violent history in his briefing as “ironic” after he faced two lawsuits for use of force and false imprisonment during his time as an officer in Prince George’s County.
Since Davis took office, county police officers have been involved in eight shootings, including six in 2022 and three fatalities, according to the department’s website. That equals the number seen from 2014 to 2020 — nearly the entirety of the tenure of Davis’s predecessor.
Policy on foot pursuits needed, groups say
The civil rights groups are also urging the FCPD to adopt a policy dictating when officers can pursue a suspect on foot — something recommended by a 2021 University of Texas study of the department’s use of force.
The department currently doesn’t have any policy related to foot pursuits beyond the criteria for using deadly force against a fleeing felon, says ACLU People Power Fairfax Lead Advocate Diane Burkley Alejandro, who’s on a Use of Force Citizen Advisory Committee that backed the study’s recommendation last year.
“If you had a real policy in place that told the officers what they can and cannot do, and you enforce that policy and you impose discipline if they violated that policy, then I think this incident would not have occurred” based on the information police have released, Alejandro told FFXnow.
The university study found that Black individuals are 1.8 times more likely than their white counterparts to have a weapon pointed at them by police.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay says he has spoken to Davis about a foot pursuit policy, and they both agreed it’s “something that needs to be evaluated.”
“I share many of the concerns expressed by members of our community regarding what led to the tragic death of Timothy Johnson,” he said in a statement to FFXnow. “I have not personally reviewed video or other evidence not publicly available, so I continue to withhold final judgement on this incident.”
While he’s confident “there will be a thorough investigation of the facts” in last week’s shooting, McKay said the county remains “committed to modernizing and reforming police procedures” after undertaking “hundreds” of changes since its Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission released a report in 2015.