Federal Officials Close Review of Fatal Shooting of Kionte Spencer
ROANOKE, VIRGINIA – The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia announced today that there is insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against the Roanoke County Police Officers involved in the fatal shooting of Kionte Spencer on February 26, 2016.
Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division met with members of Spencer’s family today to inform them of this decision. Federal authorities conducted an independent review of all the information obtained during the state’s investigation. This information included dashboard cameras from the officers’ patrol cars, statements by the officers and independent eyewitnesses, audio recordings, and other physical evidence.
The team of federal prosecutors considered whether the officers violated federal law by willfully using unreasonable force against Spencer. Under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, prosecutors would be required to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a law enforcement officer, or in this case officers, willfully deprived Mr. Spencer of a constitutional right. To establish willfulness, federal authorities would be required to show that the officers acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is the highest standard of intent imposed by law. Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.
Evidence showed that on February 26, 2016, at approximately 7:15 p.m., officers responded after a 9-1-1 caller reported a man walking on the shoulder of Brambleton Avenue in Roanoke County wearing a mask and backpack and carrying a firearm, which the caller said “appeared to be a Glock.” The caller further stated that the man was waving the gun around and had pointed it at passing cars, including the car driven by the caller.
Shortly thereafter, the Roanoke County Police Department dispatched six officers to the busy intersection of Brambleton Avenue and Electric Road in Roanoke County, where they saw Spencer attired as described by the caller and carrying what appeared to be a handgun in his right hand. The officers repeatedly commanded Spencer to stop and drop the “gun.” At least one officer made commands using a police vehicle’s public address system. Spencer disregarded these commands and continued walking with the handgun at his side. Although he was wearing headphones, Spencer turned his head toward the officers multiple times and pivoted in a 360 degree turn so that officers were within his line of sight as he turned onto Electric Road. In addition, the flashing lights of several police cars were visible to him.
Officers followed Spencer on foot with their weapons drawn as they continued to call for him to stop and drop the gun. Spencer looked directly at the officers, but continued to disregard their commands. Officers refrained from using force and continued to follow him. As Spencer continued to walk and ignore the officers’ commands, one officer holstered his weapon and attempted to resolve the situation without deadly force by making two unsuccessful attempts to tase Spencer. After he turned right off of Electric Road toward an apartment complex, Mr. Spencer turned and faced the officers and began to raise both hands, including the hand with the gun, waist high toward the officers. At that time, two officers fired a total of three shots, two of which struck Mr. Spencer and fatally wounded him.
The investigation revealed that the weapon carried by Mr. Spencer was a Crossman BB-gun, with the grips missing. The BB-gun is made to look like an actual handgun and bears markings similar to a Glock.
In this instance, there is no reliable evidence to contradict the assertion that the officers fired at Spencer because they perceived him to be a deadly threat to themselves and others. The BB-gun’s appearance was consistent with information provided by the 9-1-1 caller and relayed to responding officers that Mr. Spencer was armed with a gun. When officers first encountered Mr. Spencer, they attempted to defuse the situation using repeated verbal commands to stop walking and drop the gun. Officers also attempted to use non-lethal means, including the use of a taser. It was only when Mr. Spencer turned to face the officers and raised his hands with the gun pointed towards them that they opened fire.
Based on a careful and thorough review federal prosecutors determined that there was insufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that officers acted willfully with a bad purpose to violate federal law. Accordingly, the federal review of this incident has been closed without prosecution. This decision is limited strictly to an application of the high legal standard required to prosecute the case under the federal civil rights statute; it does not reflect an assessment of any other aspect of the incident that led to Mr. Spencer’s death.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Civil Rights Division are committed to investigating allegations of civil rights violations by law enforcement officers and will continue to devote the resources required to ensure that all allegations of serious civil rights violations are fully and completely investigated. The department will aggressively prosecute criminal civil rights violations whenever there is sufficient evidence to do so.