Police in Harrisonburg, Virginia, say their fatal shooting of Michael Pierce Jr. was a justifiable homicide. Yet police are shielding most body camera footage of the incident and refusing to request a third-party investigation.
The Harrisonburg Police Department says Pierce Jr. pointed a gun to the chest of his neighbor on September 20, 2015. Once police arrived on the scene, officials say he refused to relinquish his shotgun despite more than 40 requests by officers to do so. Police say Pierce Jr. then tried to flee the scene, firing his gun in the process. Police fired back, killing him.
The department has released some body camera footage of the encounter, but it was from the perspective of an officer standing away from the shooting, Michael Pierce Sr. told WHSV. Upon viewing the footage, he said he did not see his son until Pierce Jr. was dead on the ground.
“Something just told me that something wasn’t right, it just wasn’t right,” Pierce told WHSV.
Pierce Jr.’s shooting death was deemed justifiable by local Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst in September.
Harrisonburg police have refused to release body camera footage from other officers involved in the shooting. Those officers’ perspectives may shed more light on the encounter, Pierce Sr. said. Despite a Freedom of Information request for all the footage of the Pierce Jr. encounter, police have argued that the video can be shielded from the public, citing exclusions in Virginia state law that allow such recordings to be withheld based on an active investigation and personnel matters.
Pierce Sr. has countered that, if the case was fairly open-and-shut and his son was obviously in the wrong – as the Commonwealth Attorney and local police have claimed – then releasing all the footage should not be controversial.
“If it was so clear cut and if it was so easy for them to go ahead and justify this as a justifiable homicide… They had the opportunity to show me that,” Pierce said.
He added: “I want to just see my son do this. If that’s what happened, then just show me, and I’ll go away. I’ll accept whatever happened that night. Like I said, I know Michael shouldn’t have been out there with a gun to begin with.”
The criminal investigation into the shooting is closed, but the internal investigation is ongoing, WHSV reported. The Harrisonburg PD said it offered the FBI the opportunity to review the tape more than six weeks after the shooting. But, as is their prerogative based on state law, the department has not asked the Virginia State Police to investigate.
Furthermore, the police officers involved in the shooting have not been identified by the Harrisonburg PD. “Once I’m very confident that the risk is over, then we’ll go ahead and release those names,” HPD Chief Stephen Monticelli said in September 2015.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is standing behind Pierce Sr.’s call for a full release of body camera footage and the names of the officers involved.
“I can’t really think of a community event that’s more significant than an individual member of the community being shot fatally by law enforcement, and I think the community has a right to expect to understand what happened,” said Bill Farrar, director of public policy and communications for the ACLU of Virginia.
The Harrisonburg PD confirmed to WHSV that the names of the officers involved will not be released anytime soon.
“Why? They released the name of my son. Why? Transparency. That’s what we’re wanting,” said Pierce Sr.
Nearly 1,000 people were fatally shot by police in the US in 2015, according to the Washington Post’s comprehensive count of such incidents. Nearly 250 people have been killed by police in the US thus far in 2016, the Post says.
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