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Virginia officer fired after killing an unarmed man suspected of shoplifting

<i>Matthew Barakat/AP</i><br/>Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis addressed reporters on March 23.
Matthew Barakat/AP
Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis addressed reporters on March 23.

By Rashard Rose and Andrea Cambron, CNN

A Virginia police officer has been fired and is under criminal investigation after police say he shot and killed an unarmed shoplifting suspect, Fairfax County police announced Thursday.

Officers suspected the man who was killed, Timothy Johnson, 37, had stolen items from a Tysons Corner shopping center February 22, Chief Kevin Davis told reporters.

According to a department news release, “Sergeant Wesley Shifflett, a 7-year veteran of the department and Police Officer First Class James Sadler, an 8-year veteran of the department discharged their firearms.”

Police said the two officers fired three total shots, and Davis confirmed Shifflett fired the fatal shot.

“The officer’s actions do not meet the expectations of our police department — in particular, use of force policies, protocols and procedures,” Davis said. “He will no longer be a Fairfax County police officer.”

Shifflett was terminated. Through his attorney, Caleb Kershner, Shifflett denies any wrongdoing and says he was protecting himself from a suspect who refused all police commands, believing he was in jeopardy of serious bodily harm.

Sadler remains on modified restricted duty, according to Davis. It’s unclear if Sadler has a lawyer.

CNN has also reached out to the Fairfax County police union for comment.

Bodycam captures fatal chase

Store security reported a man concealing designer sunglasses, according to the police news release last month. “An officer observed the man exiting the store near a parking garage. As he exited the store, an anti-theft alarm was activated as he fled,” a release from police stated.

Bodycam footage released by police shows the officers chasing the suspect through the shopping mall and a parking garage, into a grassy, wooded area of the mall property while shouting verbal commands.

One of the officers yells, “Get on the ground,” and then two gunshots can be heard in the video. One officer then says, “stop reaching,” and another shot is fired.

An officer then says, “Shots fired, shots fired,” and police begin to render aid to Johnson.

Police said both officers discharged their firearms, and Johnson was struck in the chest one time.

It is unclear from the video which shots were fired by which officer, and which shot hit Johnson.

An officer is heard on video after the shooting saying, “He was reaching.”

Later in the video, officers are seen talking to each other with one officer saying, “He didn’t get any rounds off. I don’t know if he’s armed. He was continually reaching in his waistband (inaudible) let me see your hands, let me see your hands.”

Johnson was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Davis told reporters two pairs of sunglasses were recovered from the scene and Johnson was unarmed. In video released by police last month, edited surveillance footage highlights a person police say was Johnson removing two pairs of sunglasses from a sales rack.

Davis added a criminal investigation is ongoing, and the department will share details and developments with prosecutors.

Charging decision expected soon

Neither of the officers has been charged.

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano told CNN affiliate WJLA in a statement he expects to make a decision on how to proceed within weeks.

Johnson’s family viewed the body camera footage earlier this month, according to WJLA.

“Timothy was unarmed and shoplifting,” his mother, Melissa Johnson told the station earlier this month. “What played out on the news was a judge, jury and an execution-style murder.”

Kershner defended his client saying, “A police officer should never be forced to be shot or seriously injured before he takes action to protect himself or others.”

In a statement, Kershner said, “During the incident on February 22, Shifflett deployed his firearm after a fleeing suspect turned on him, refused all commands to show his hands and get on the ground, and began digging into his waist band, looking as if he were drawing a gun from under his baggy pants in order to kill Sergeant Shifflett,” though alleged commands to show his hands are not clearly audible in the footage released by police. In the dark and shaky bodycam footage, it is difficult to see Johnson and any movements he made.

“Shifflett was only a few yards away from the suspect. He had no cover, and only his gun to protect himself from being shot at point-blank range. Shifflett fired his own weapon twice at the suspect, then tripped over some nearby brush and fell to the ground. The other pursuing officer also responded by firing his weapon,” Kershner said.

Kershner said Shifflett’s actions were “entirely justified,” and said his client will appeal his firing through the department’s formal grievance process, “and we are confident that he will be exonerated.”

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