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Report: Alexandria officers acted in self-defense in shooting of ex-Marine

A former Marine shot and killed by Alexandria police officers in February pointed a loaded gun at them after ignoring repeated requests to show his hands, according to a report released Monday by city prosecutors.

The 30-page report by Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel clears the seven officers who fired at 30-year-old Taft Sellers of criminal wrongdoing. The report also publicly details for the first time the circumstances surrounding the incident. After responding to a domestic disturbance, the officers fired 37 shots, hitting Sellers five times, the report states; Sellers pointed his gun at the officers but did not fire.

“Under these circumstances, the law clearly supports the conclusion that the officers were entitled to use deadly force in response and that they fired in self-defense,” the report says.

The report does not clear the officers of administrative wrongdoing or judge their tactical decisions during the encounter. Alexandria Deputy Police Chief Blaine Corle said an internal investigation would now probe whether they followed department policies. A police spokesman said they will remain on administrative duty until that investigation is done.

Chris Sims, a friend of Sellers from high school, said that if a gun was shown, then officers probably had the right to fire. Still, he said, he wished fewer officers had fired, and he wished they had fired in such a way that spared Sellers’ life.

“I understand that it’s for the safety of the police, and if a gun was shown, then I understand,” he said. “I just wish it wasn’t lethal force.”

At the time of his death, friends remembered Sellers, a former Marine and graduate of T.C. Williams High School, as a sensitive person who wrote poetry.

According to the report, Sellers had been visiting his grandmother in the 3400 block of Duke Street on Feb. 18 when he got into an argument with his sister. She called police to report that her brother had a gun, although he had not threatened to use it, according to the report.

Officers encountered Sellers in an open-air stairwell and tried to engage him in conversation, the report states. He acknowledged to one officer that he had a gun, and several officers saw him reach behind his back to grab it, according to the report.

Even after that, according to the report, an officer tried to engage Sellers in conversation and asked him to show his hands. Sellers did not respond, and eventually pointed a loaded, Glock semiautomatic pistol at the officers, according to the report.

Sengel said at a news conference that justified the officers’ shooting him. “There’s obviously no requirement that they wait until they’re fired upon to neutralize a threat,” he said.

Seven officers fired 37 shots at Sellers, using handguns, a shotgun and a rifle, according to the report. The report says the total number of shots “cannot in and of itself be used as a meaningful measure of whether or not the police response was excessive,” given that they were fired in maybe 10 seconds. It says officers fired one or two rounds after a cease-fire was called.

The report summarizes the account of each of the seven officers, saying they were corroborated by cellphone videos and independent witnesses who captured or saw various parts of the encounter. One witness told investigators that officers tried to negotiate with Sellers for “quite a long time,” according to the report.

The report does not say why, precisely, Sellers pointed a gun at officers. It notes, however, that he sent an e-mail to friends and family earlier on the day of the shooting that “strongly implied that he was going to commit suicide.”

The officers are identified in the report as O. Dunn, J. Panesar, J. Hancq, C. Stowe, H. Richmann, T. Ashman and S. Riley. Their first names are not given, and the department and Sengel declined to provide them.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.

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