Portsmouth police chief addresses recent officer-involved shootings

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Portsmouth Police Chief Ed Hargis addressed the media Thursday morning, explaining the investigative process into recent officer-involved deaths.

“As you know, I asked for the Virginia State Police to conduct a criminal investigation into two incidents that occurred here in Portsmouth,” Chief Hargis said.

Those two incidents happened just weeks apart. The first was in March inside the Colin Drive home of Walter Brown. After a police chase, three officers followed Brown into the house. Police say Brown pulled out a gun in a bedroom and an officer shot him.

Then, last week, suspected shoplifter William Chapman was shot during a struggle with an officer in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Frederick Boulevard. Witnesses told WAVY.com Chapman wrestled with an officer and was Tased without effect before the gun was fired.

“We are in the process of conducting the investigations to find out clearly what happened and why it happened,” Hargis said during the 11 a.m. press conference. “[We want to see] if what happened is a violation of law.”

Hargis voluntarily handed the criminal investigations of each death over to Virginia State Police. He wanted an outside agency to look at the facts, in an effort to be transparent and maintain public trust. The Portsmouth Police Department will still conduct administrative investigations of each incident to see if the officers involved followed department policy.

Hargis said the administrative investigations have been put on hold until state police complete the criminal investigations.

When Virginia State Police is done with their investigations, they will release the findings to the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales. She will then review the findings and determine if any criminal charges should be pursued against the police officers involved in the shootings.

Until the investigations are complete, Hargis explained, there is a lot of information that cannot be released to the public. In the meantime, the officers involved in the shooting deaths are not on the streets. They have been put on administrative duty, working in police offices, until the investigations are over.

Hargis has come under fire for not releasing the names of the those officers. By law, he doesn’t have to, but he explained his reasons during the press conference:

  1. First, Virginia State Police has a policy not to release names during criminal investigations, especially in these types of critical incidents of officer-involved shootings. I’ve asked Virginia State Police to conduct this independent investigation, and I will adhere to their protocol to allow their investigators to do their job and complete the investigation and make it as independent as possible.
  2. The second reason is, Ms. Morales, the Commonwealth’s attorney, gave a statement yesterday that these investigations must not be impeded in any way.
  3. And my third reason is, for the concern and safety of the officers that are involved, as well as their families, and to ensure that the citizens of Portsmouth are safe.

Some Portsmouth residents, as well as members of the Chapman family, have said their questions mostly concern the officer that was involved in the Wal-Mart shooting.

“Was he biased toward this young gentleman in any type of way?” asked Portsmouth resident Maranto McKiver. “Was the officer dealing with some type of issue?”

McKiver said his biggest concern, as a resident, is for an unbiased agency or group to investigate the shooting. While he has many questions about the investigation, he said he understands the investigation takes time.

“You cannot do an investigation in two or three days,” said Fred Schoenfeld, who lives in Portsmouth and owns the Commodore Theatre in Olde Towne. “It takes weeks and sometimes months.”

Stephen Rankin posterDuring the Thursday press conference, Hargis also talked about an officer-involved shooting from April 23, 2011. Officer Stephen Rankin responded to a burglary-in-progress call near the Olde Towne section of Portsmouth. Rankin was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Even though Hargis did not say Rankin was the same officer involved in the recent Wal-Mart shooting, he did say Rankin is currently on administrative duty.

This week, posters featuring Rankin’s face and the words, “Charge Stephen Rankin with murder!!!” have appeared throughout the city. Hargis said the signs have been posted by individuals.

Hargis said the posters are being handled by their department of neighborhood advancement and city inspectors.

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