After an Albemarle County Police officer shot and killed 21-year-old Gregory Rosson on June 8—the third officer-involved shooting this year— public demands for information were immediate and fierce. It’s a reaction cops brace themselves for any time an officer fires a gun at a civilian, and even more so if there’s a fatality involved. As public commenters, local media, and Rosson’s family put the heat on, leaders in both the city and the county police departments said they wouldn’t disclose any more information.
“It’s frustrating for the community to not have immediate information,” said Albemarle County Police Major John Parrent. “But there’s a lot of reasons behind that.”
Police departments say they are limited in terms of what details they can release to the community during an active criminal investigation. And while local police and officials said they understand concerns about secrecy, they bear a clear responsibility to weigh the issues of public safety and justice with the public’s right to know what happened.
Protocol following an officer-involved shooting varies depending on the jurisdiction, but Charlottesville and Albemarle follow similar two-fold procedures. There’s a criminal investigation, which in the case of the most recent Albemarle shooting is being handled by the Virginia State Police. Often longer and more complex is the administrative investigation, which can either be conducted by the department itself or a third party. Parrent said the county has a sergeant who is trained specifically for these situations, and the whole process is overseen by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
Once the administrative investigation is complete, some jurisdictions release the results. Neither the county nor the city choose to release the findings of their administrative investigations which means we may never know what happened at the scene of a police-involved shooting if an officer is cleared.
Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo, who’s been in the field for 30 years and “by the grace of God” never been involved in a shooting himself, said he agrees strongly that any disciplinary action taken on an officer should remain confidential, but the rationale behind containing the administrative information is debatable.
“Typically the results of an internal investigation are not disclosed, and I’m often personally conflicted by that,” Longo said. “I do think that there’s value in releasing the results of an administrative investigation. It’s frustrating for me to not be able to answer your questions, which are legitimate questions.”
Longo said protocol was different in Baltimore, where internal investigations were subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but he was given specific instructions upon arriving in Charlottesville. The criminal process needs to run its course, he said, and any details leaked through the media or public forums can potentially impact witness testimony later.
With three police-involved shootings coming in close succession, the decision around how much of the investigation to make public takes on added significance.
On Saturday, June 8, police were called to a house in the 900 block of Rockfish Gap Turnpike—a stretch of Route 250 between Crozet and Afton—for a “domestic situation” in the early hours of the morning. According to the latest press releases, the responding county officer saw a female being assaulted in the front yard. Rosson then ran toward the officer, and died at the scene after the officer fired his weapon. Rosson’s body has been transported to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond for an autopsy. His criminal files show that he was set to appear in court the following day on a charge of assaulting a police officer, and that he had had mental health issues. Search warrants filed on June 11 revealed that police found a firearm magazine and four cartridge cases in Rosson’s home and vehicle after the shooting, didn’t state whether or not Rosson was armed when he was killed.
Two weeks prior, on May 26, Albemarle County police officer William Underwood shot 38-year-old Josue Salinas Valdez at Valdez’s city townhouse while investigating a hit-and-run. That shooting is still under investigation.
On March 16, Charlottesville officer Alexander Bruner shot Franklin Donnett Brown, 56, of Albemarle, while responding to a fight outside the Elks Lodge near the Downtown Mall. Brown had allegedly shot 22-year-old Leon Travis Brock of Culpeper County immediately before he was shot by Bruner. Bruner was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in that case.
Longo and Parrent both emphasized that they have a primary responsibility to their officers and to the judicial process following a shooting. Both departments immediately provide counseling and support for the officer involved in the incident.
“It’s a very traumatic event with an emotional toll on the officer,” Parrent said. “Every time we have one, it makes you think about the job of a police officer, and how you can find yourself one day doing normal patrol work and then the next day in a violent encounter that you would never have expected.”
Officials say the procedures can take anywhere from weeks to months, and regardless of the criminal findings, results of the internal investigation are irrelevant to public safety, and thus never shared with the community. Parrent said a threat assessment is also conducted on the involved officers, to ensure their safety against any retaliation against them and their families.
“It’s not just a quick decision we make,” Parrent said. “We have some definite points we want to hit before we release information.”
Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford said details released should be based on public safety. If a violent criminal is on the loose, for example, she said it’s important to reveal as much information as possible.
Lunsford said one of the most complicated—and essential—aspects of the investigation is determining what information the officer had upon arrival to the scene.
“What is most important in an officer-involved shooting is what the officer knew at the time,” she said. “It’s really very fact-dependent.”
Those facts come from reviews of the 911 call, audio and video recordings of the scene, and radio traffic between officers. As for the criminal information, Lunsford said that’s always available.
“If there are going to be charges and a public trial, you have every right to come and find out what happened,” she said.