Saturday, March 25, 2023

York-Poquoson’s top cop insists his deputy ‘accidentally’ fired his weapon. But an investigation has not determined that

YPSO investigatesMultiple investigations are continuing after a York County deputy discharged his firearm last week during a traffic stop in Williamsburg involving two William & Mary students.

While the York-Poquoson sheriff insisted the shot was “accidental,” an official investigation by Williamsburg Police is still underway — meaning no official determination has been given.

Both the Williamsburg Police Department and York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office said publicly labeling the the firearm discharge “accidental” will not impact the outcome of their respective investigations.

“They can certainly draw their own conclusions,” said York-Poquoson Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Diggs of the Williamsburg Police investigation Monday.

The unidentified deputy is on paid administrative leave while Williamsburg investigates the criminal side of the incident, and the sheriff’s office conducts an internal investigation.

The incident happened around 6:40 p.m. Thursday in the 400 block of Merrimac Trail in Williamsburg, just past the Williamsburg-York County boundary.

A York County deputy initiated a traffic stop on a gray Honda sedan containing two William & Mary Law School students because it did not have its lights on, the sheriff’s office said.

Williamsburg Police spokesman Officer John Heilman said the traffic stop was initiated in the 500 block of Merrimac Trail, which is in York County. County law enforcement can enforce criminal matters up to 300 yards inside the limits.

Once the vehicle stopped, the driver attempted to get out of the car. The deputy told the driver to get back in their car, drew his weapon, and “accidentally” fired a round, Williamsburg Police said.

Heilman said the round hit the inside of the driver’s side door. No one was injured.

Williamsburg officers responded after receiving a call of “shots fired.” Police were told the deputy “accidentally” discharged his firearm. It remains unclear who “told” officers it was “accidental.”

An accident?

Information on the incident was released to the media around 3:30 p.m. Friday, 19 hours after the initial incident.

In a sheriff’s office news release, Diggs concluded the shot was an “accident,” stating: “Anything than a less than perfect response regarding an interaction between police and citizens is something that should be reviewed. This was an unfortunate accident with no malice or ill intent towards the occupants of the vehicle.”

Diggs said he determined the incident was an “accident” after getting a statement from the deputy.

He also reviewed they deputy’s body camera footage. Diggs said other members of the sheriff’s office also reviewed the footage, but he declined to say who. It’s also unclear whether he watched the footage himself or with other deputies.

Diggs said camera footage is uploaded to a server from deputies’ body cameras during or at the end of their shifts. The footage can be uploaded and shared, but the system will not allow it to be altered, deleted or tampered with, Diggs said.

Diggs said the footage has also been passed along to Williamsburg Police for their investigation.

“There was no reason for him to discharge his firearm otherwise,” Diggs told WYDaily Monday. “He didn’t feel he was in substantial jeopardy, and there was no ill intent or malice toward anyone.”

“The video supports the deputy’s account,” Diggs added.

Diggs said the sheriff’s office’s internal investigation into the incident is “essentially complete,” but it would “be premature” to conclude their probe before the Williamsburg Police make a final determination.

Because the issue is a “personnel matter,” the sheriff’s office declined to identify the deputy. Diggs said the sheriff’s office would take “proper corrective action” based on the results of the investigations.

Diggs said he did not believe declaring the incident an “accident” would impede or influence the Williamsburg Police Department’s separate investigation.

Heilman also said Diggs’ statement calling the incident an “accident” would not impact the course or result of the Williamsburg Police investigation.

“The sole purpose of the investigation is to find out whether it was accidental or not,” Heilman said.

When the investigation concludes, the investigator from the Williamsburg Police will send the paperwork to the Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

At that time, investigators will recommend whether they believe charges should be filed against the deputy and consult with the commonwealth’s attorney on how to proceed.

“We want to investigate this as quickly as possible, but also as thoroughly as possible,” Heilman said.

Disseminating information to the public

Both departments sent out news releases within minutes of each other around 3:30 p.m. Friday.

York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shelley Ward said the sheriff’s office does not have a written policy on how promptly it needs to release incident-related information to the public, but they “always strive to get accurate information out to the public as soon as we possibly can.”

“There are many different scenarios and situations that could factor into how quickly we can respond to the incident, gather accurate information, confirm the information and then disseminate it to the public,” she said.

Heilman said the Williamsburg Police Department’s public information officers were under the impression York County would be handling the investigation and public communications for the incident until leadership from both departments met late Friday morning.

Diggs said he called Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn Thursday night to inform him the deputy had discharged his weapon within city limits during a traffic stop. At the time, the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office was able to investigate the incident on its own because it had jurisdiction.

Friday morning, Diggs met with Dunn to discuss whether Williamsburg Police should take over the external investigation.

During that meeting, law enforcement decided Williamsburg Police would handle the external investigation into the incident.

“It’s a cleaner investigation when you have an outside agency investigating it,” Heilman said. “That’s not to say it couldn’t be an accident.”

William & Mary’s response

William & Mary spokeswoman Suzanne Clavet said the university first heard about the incident Thursday night.

The students involved in the incident alerted the university Thursday night, then the two involved law enforcement agencies notified the university Friday morning.

William & Mary Police, the law school dean and student affairs representatives met with the two students involved and their classmates to answer “any questions they might have” and provide direction for resources, Clavet said.

University administrators also met with the students in “numerous” settings, including individual meetings and broader group discussions, Clavet added.

William & Mary Police are not separately investigating the incident, they have simply been offering support and resources to students, Clavet said.

Those who may have witnessed the incident are asked to call the Williamsburg Police Department at 757-259-7206.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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