Key witness in Kionte Spencer shooting investigation identified by WDBJ7

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ROANOKE CO., Va. (WDBJ7) No charges will be filed against the Roanoke County officers who shot and killed teenager Kionte Spencer back in February.

Roanoke County Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Leach reviewed the case, and said the officers were reasonably in fear for their safety and that Spencer was attempting to point a gun at officers.

“It is quite clear in my mind that these officers were justified in what they did,” Leach said at a news conference Wednesday.

Spencer was shot and killed the evening of February 26th. Two officers fired a total of three shots at Spencer. He was struck twice. The names of the officers will not be released.

"Had [Spencer] acted responsibly or followed directions, this incident could have been avoided," Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall said.

Images previously released showed Spencer holding a BB gun. It was "not reasonable" to suggest that officers could tell the difference between BB gun and real gun at that time, Leach found.

“They have to believe that [it] is a real weapon," Leach said.

Police say Spencer turned to officers a total of six times, and it was reasonable to conclude Spencer knew officers were trying to stop him.
Investigators say officers gave clear, repeated instructions to Spencer. One attempted to use less-lethal force by firing two rounds from a taser but they did not directly hit Spencer. It's likely that the taser failed because it struck his backpack. One of the taser prongs attached to his sweatshirt.

One officer requested a beanbag gun before the shooting. However, the supervisor with that device did not make it to the area before Spencer was shot. All officers involved are back on patrol after previously being on administrative leave, Hall said.

WHAT THE PUBLIC CAN SEE

WDBJ7 Anchor Chris Hurst was one of the handful of local media members and county administrators who were allowed to see dash camera video of the shooting. Hall and Leach showed the video and described its content for the press, county supervisors Jason Peters and Al Bedrosian and county administrator Tom Gates. Because the video will not be released in full to the public, we've chosen not to relay what Hurst saw except for basic information later included in the news conference.

The only 911 call to dispatch to send officers to the scene was played during the announcement and is available to the right of this page. Chief Hall said still images from the footage prove his officers did what they had to do. Those images are included in this story as well, at the top of the page.

“We believe that the release of the video could be used inappropriately [or be] altered,” Hall said.

Some of the images show a gray minivan about to turn northbound onto Electric Road. Spencer crossed in front of the vehicle and continued past a grassy ridge where he ultimately is shot. WDBJ7 Anchor Melissa Gaona interviewed a man the night of the shooting and again Wednesday evening who says he’s the driver of the van.

Ken Schoff was shown the images of the van provided by Roanoke County Police.

"Is this your car?” Gaona asked.

“Yes,” Schoff said.

“How do you know this is your car?” Gaona replied.

“Because I was there when he walked by,” Schoff said. “I could see the gun in his hand. The police car came up following him and actually stopped right in front of me so that I couldn't get onto 419.”

Schoff said he heard police yelling for Spencer to drop the gun. He said shortly after that Spencer was out of his view, but saw a police officer shoot his weapon twice. He heard three shots in all, a detail confirmed earlier by Hall.

He said a police officer then approached his car and told him to make a U-turn and leave.

"Where you ever asked any questions about what you saw?” Gaona asked.

“No ma'am,” he said. He added he was never contacted by Roanoke County Police for its criminal investigation and internal review.

When asked by Hurst during the video viewing, Hall said the driver of the minivan was never identified or interviewed and that the license plate could not be read from footage.

Late Wednesday, a county spokesperson could not confirm if an officer told Schoff to leave the scene instead of being asked to give a statement of what he saw. A copy of the department’s patrol procedures was given where, in preliminary investigations, officers are to “locate and identify” as well as interview potential witnesses.

Assistant Chief Chuck Mason said in a statement provided to WDBJ7, “It is the responsibility of the officers responding to a crime scene to secure it and attempt to identify potential witnesses. In a dynamic and stressful incident, there are a great number of priority events occurring virtually simultaneously which the officers must manage in addition to securing the scene and identifying witnesses.  

"In the first minutes following the shooting, the officers were trying to accomplish all of these things. Without having had the opportunity to speak to the gentleman interviewed by WDBJ on February 26, I cannot eliminate the possibility that an officer may have cleared the gentleman away from the area, either for the man’s safety or to protect the crime scene, without realizing that he was a witness to a portion of the incident.

"In the days following the incident, when the Police Department requested on several occasions that witnesses to the event contact the investigators, apparently, the gentleman did not do so.  Because the tag number on the man’s vehicle cannot be clearly seen, the Department’s own attempts to identify the vehicle and the gentleman were not successful.”

Aside from the officers involved, no witnesses to the shooting were ever located or interviewed, Hall said. Only the one caller to dispatch before the shooting and two callers afterward were interviewed by the police department’s own investigators.

A TROUBLED LIFE

Hall said records suggest Spencer was removed from his biological parents' home because of abuse. Spencer was also in a variety of mental health programs. Hall said Spencer attempted suicide twice in his life and in the months before his death stopped taking prescribed medications commonly used to treat mental illness. The day before he was killed, he saw a counselor at Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare.

"I think it's reasonable to conclude he was suffering from a mental illness. He was someone in crisis, which makes it more tragic," Hall said.

Spencer was living at an independent living group home nearby on Garst Mill Road, according to police and Spencer’s friends. The home is operated by YouthQuest, a part of Intercept Youth Services, which offers apartment living for people ages 17-21 and teaches life-building skills, according to its website. It is licensed as a child-placing agency with DSS. Its residents have what are called “independent living arrangements.” Hall said Spencer was instructed not to leave his apartment that night by staff but did so anyway.

An investigator with the Department of Social Services looked into whether YouthQuest staff followed Virginia code in its care and treatment of Spencer, a spokesperson confirmed via email in late March.

“An inspection was conducted in response to the agency self-reporting an incident,” online records show about the Intercept facility, although a DSS spokesperson has not responded to repeated attempts this week to confirm it relates to Spencer’s death. “Interviews were conducted with agency staff and local department staff. A youth record was reviewed. The information gathered does not support any violations of [Virginia administrative code.]”

Wednesday morning, Spencer's adoptive parents, who live in Martinsville, were briefed on the results of the investigative and internal review and offered the chance to see dash camera video. Hall said he didn’t know whether they saw video of their son’s death.

POLICY AND PROGRESS

While it remains unclear if that one officer’s interaction with Schoff violates department procedure, other common tactics for approaching armed subjects were highlighted in this case. In several images of dash cam footage provided by police, officers closely approach Spencer in their vehicles. Video seen by the select press group showed at least two officer cars repeatedly drove up behind Spencer within a few feet of him as he continued to walk away.

Driving up to armed subjects in department vehicles has come under scrutiny across the country after the officer-involved deaths of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, Chief Hall himself is quoted denouncing that kind of decision-making in a publication from the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF.

In May 2015, Hall attended a PERF summit in Washington D.C. called “Re-Engineering Training on Police Use of Force.” In a PERF document published in August, Hall said, “I think that some of the most notable incidents we’ve seen around the country reflect a failure to use the tactics that we have been teaching for years.”

“For example, we were taught never to approach a suspect, whether it’s a suspect from an armed robbery or a jaywalker, from your car,” he added. “We saw the video from Cleveland, where those officers believed going in that they were approaching someone with a weapon. But they drove within a few feet of him.

"And I remember the instructors in the academy telling us 29 years ago why you shouldn’t do that—because the person can reach in the car and touch you.

"So to some degree, we’re talking about new tactics, but it’s also about reinforcing the tactics that we’ve been teaching for years, and making sure that our officers are using that training in the field to keep themselves safe.”

When asked about his officers’ response first encountering Spencer and the juxtaposition with his comments at the PERF summit, Hall said they had to keep following him in cars because Spencer was waking away from them. He said getting out to initiate further contact could have put officers in danger.

“Not when you’re trying to maintain cover,” he said. “I think the officers were trying to make an attempt to be safe in their approach. Is that perfect? No. It’s never going to be … in this case our officers did drive up than what is probably safe to do but I think they were using appropriate judgment in terms of trying to handle a very critical incident.”

Hall said Wednesday more work will be done to examine best practices.

“We reviewed the entire incident and now that the investigation is completed we'll do a critique with the people that are involved,” he said.

Roanoke NAACP Branch President Brenda Hale wants the Department of Justice to take a look.

“I'm not at all completely satisfied that we know everything,” she said. She in the past had made requests for Roanoke County officers to wear body cameras and for the video recordings on the shooting be released to the public. Hall said not only were body cameras costly, around $250,000 per year for camera costs and data storage, but that usefulness of the cameras had not been fully determined.

Roanoke County Board of Supervisors chairman Jason Peters saw video of the shooting and trusts the chief and police.

“I as a board member don't feel like I have a right to question that because I don't have that expertise,” he said.

Hale said she still plans to meet with the state NAACP representatives to decide about possible legal action the group can take in federal court.



Related Audio
911 call in Kionte Spencer investigation