The ACLU of Virginia and the Roanoke Branch NAACP have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the practices of the Roanoke County Police Department, whose officers fatally shot an African-American teenager in February.
In a letter sent earlier this month to Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the organizations cited the high rate of police killings in Virginia in which mentally ill people are the victims. A study by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper found that 40 percent of people shot and killed by police in Virginia from 2010-15 were mentally ill.
Police Chief Harvey Hall publicly discussed 18-year-old Kionte Desean Spencer’s mental health issues in great detail on May 24 when his officers were cleared of any wrong-doing by the Roanoke County Commonwealth’s attorney. Mr. Spencer’s killing on Feb. 26 was his 12th encounter with law enforcement, the chief said at that time, with none of his previous interactions resulting in any charges.
The letter, signed by ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga and Roanoke NAACP President Brenda Hale, requests an independent investigation of the police department for “unconstitutional police practices targeting minorities and people with disabilities” pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
Police shot and killed Mr. Spencer early in the evening on Feb. 26, minutes after responding to a 911 call reporting someone waving a firearm while walking along a public road. The weapon was later discovered to be a broken BB pistol.
“We believe any use of deadly force, particularly against people of color and persons with disabilities should be subject to an outside, objective investigation, and not merely a self-examination by the department involved and the Commonwealth’s attorney with whom it regularly works,” the letter states.
The ACLU-VA and the Roanoke NAACP are asking that a full report of findings be prepared and released to the public, including the names of the involved officers and all related dash-cam footage, other video and written reports.
Separately, the two organizations also have asked Gov. Terry McAuliffe to direct the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation of Mr. Spencer’s death.