A fatal shooting by Fairfax police remains unexplained

Friday, November 20, 2009

LAST FRIDAY, a Fairfax County police officer shot and killed an unarmed man who sat at the wheel of his sport-utility vehicle on Route 1 in heavy traffic just south of the Capital Beltway. It was lunchtime, and there was no shortage of witnesses. Now a week has elapsed, and police have not provided an explanation. What gives?

The man, David A. Masters, had apparently stolen some flowers from a planter outside a local business. Police say that when officers caught up with him, he refused their commands to pull over and stop. Mr. Masters, a 52-year-old cabinet-maker and former Green Beret who suffered from bipolar disorder, had had some previous scrapes with the law, including drunken driving and impersonating a law enforcement officer. But we know of no indication that he had a history of violence. Nor did he own or have a gun.

The police say that there will be no statement explaining why the officer opened fire until criminal and internal investigations are completed, which could take weeks. All three officers involved have been interviewed by investigators, although it seems odd that it took four days to talk to the one who opened fire. The county has not identified that officer.

We understand that police are duty-bound to conduct a thorough inquiry, including interviewing witnesses and examining forensic evidence. It is possible that Mr. Masters acted in a way that seemed threatening to officers -- possibly by opening his jacket, as his former wife said she was told by an officer. But it's difficult to imagine that police would remain all but mum for a week if an ordinary civilian shot someone in broad daylight on a crowded road -- let alone a scenario in which the civilian would be granted four days' leave before consenting to an interview with police. Whatever the case, the police department owes county residents an explanation -- sooner rather than later.

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