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    29 Mar 2016

    Harrisonburg, VA police refuse to release existing bodycam footage of fatal shooting, refuse third party investigation, citing "department preference."

     A grieving father demanding Harrisonburg Police release body camera footage of his son's deadly shooting.
    The standoff between Harrisonburg Police and Michael Pierce Jr was all captured on camera last fall. Pierce's father accuses HPD of withholding some of the video. HPD insists it's been as transparent as possible.
    "I heard them say, 'get back away from the weapon. If you don't back away I'll kill you, I'll kill you!'" Michael Pierce Sr describes what he heard in police footage.
    "And then I heard pow, pow, pow, pow, pow," he explained.
    Pierce Sr stares at a TV with Harrisonburg Police. They were playing for him the body camera footage of an officer present the day his son was killed.
    "I saw his body on the ground, and I told them I don't want to see anymore," Pierce breaks down recounting the footage.
    As Pierce was starting to learn more about what happened so too was the media.
    Harrisonburg Police Chief, Stephen Monticelli, held a new conference five days after the shooting.
    "I want to remind the community that our officers and their families are also deeply affected by these circumstances. They too need our support," he said.
    This is how Harrisonburg Police described what unfolded on September 20, 2015:
    Pierce Jr. placed a gun to the chest of a neighbor. When officers arrived, they found him sitting on that neighbor's porch next to his gun. Then, he picked up the weapon. After police ordered him more than 40 times to drop the gun, he ran away and fired at officers. That's when they fired back. One of those shots killed him. The autopsy shows one bullet struck him through the chest also hitting his lungs and heart. His father says the video he was shown doesn't connect all the dots.
    "I didn't hear a shotgun. A shotgun has a distinctive sound. Especially a .410," Pierce said.
    Six months after the shooting, Pierce Sr. has doubts, because, he says, the footage he was shown was from the point of view of an officer standing away from the actual shooting. Pierce says he never saw his son on tape, until he was dead on the ground.
    "The way it was portrayed was that he was just a crazy lunatic out there with a gun," Pierce added.
    That's why Pierce asked officers to show him all of the body camera footage. He also wanted to see the officers' footage who actually shot at his son. Pierce says, the department denied that request claiming the shooting was still an active investigation and the footage, furthermore, is considered a personnel matter.
    "Something just told me that something wasn't right, it just wasn't right," said Pierce.
    HPD also denied WHSV's Freedom of Information Act request for the body camera footage. The department cited the same exclusions Virginia law allows-- an active investigation and a personnel matter.
    Back in the September news conference, WHSV asked Chief Monticelli when he expected to release the names of the officers involved. He told us, "Once I'm very confident that the risk is over, then we'll go ahead and release those names."
    Thirty days after the shooting, Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst found the killing justifiable. She said officers acted to protect the community at great risk to themselves. She also said they used great restraint.
    But Pierce Sr. doesn't buy it.
    "If it was so clear cut and if it was so easy for them to go ahead and justify this as a justifiable homicide... They had the opportunity to show me that," Pierce said.
    HPD's decision to not release the footage is raising questions about whether body cameras are being used as a tool of transparency or surveillance.
    The investigation into this shooting has two sides. The criminal side is closed and ruled justifiable. The internal side, however, is still open. More than 43 days after the shooting. HPD reached out to the FBI to only review the tapes. To this day, the shooting itself has not been investigated by a third party. Virginia State Police was never called in to investigate.That's something HPD Lt. Kurt Boshart calls a "department preference."
    And VSP agrees.
    Some agencies don't ask for their help, and it's not required under law. However, it is a common practice. Just this weekend, there were four deadly shootings involving officers in Virginia. In three of them, state police was called in. This is fact is leaving Pierce's father to question the Harrisonburg Police Department's transparency.
    "I want to just see my son do this. If that's what happened, then just show me, and I'll go away. I'll accept whatever happened that night. Like I said, I know Michael shouldn't have been out there with a gun to begin with," he said.
    The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is standing behind Pierce's request.
    Bill Farrar, Director of Public Policy and Communications for the ACLU of Virginia, said, "I can't really think of a community event that's more significant than an individual member of the community being shot fatally by law enforcement, and I think the community has a right to expect to understand what happened." He added, "We call on the Harrisonburg Police Department to release the names of the officers involved as well as any video footage that is in their possession."
    HPD refused an on-camera interview for this report, but during a phone call, Lt. Boshart told WHSV, they're discussing what information could be released to the community. However, Boshart said, "I can confidently tell you we will not be releasing the names of the officers."
    His answer only adds to Pierce's doubt.
    "Why? They released the name of my son. Why? Transparency. That's what we're wanting," said Pierce.
    Meanwhile Boshart says, they are trying to be transparent and provide for the needs of family and community. HPD's own mission statement claims they value an open and accessible government. Pierce plans to challenge that statement in court if more footage is not released.

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