Investigate, then release

Published 9:09 pm Tuesday, February 9, 2016

It’s possible the body-cam video of the altercation that resulted in a Suffolk police officer shooting and killing a 28-year-old man in late December will reveal exactly what happened and how a police officer wound up feeling threatened to the point of firing his weapon.

Then again, the video could raise as many questions as it answers. And there are plenty of questions about the death of Corey Achstein right now. The 28-year-old’s parents have been circumspect when it comes to talking to the media in the weeks following their son’s death, but they opened up at length — and shared some important evidence — with WAVY-TV reporter Andy Fox this week.

Among the items of evidence shared in a television report on Monday were the death certificate and autopsy report for Achstein, who died near his home on Causey Avenue, after police were called to the scene on a report that a man was chasing three juveniles down the street and threatening them with a gun. Officer James Babor arrived six minutes later, and, according to a city spokesman, he fired on Achstein because of “the suspect’s actions and concern for safety.” A weapon — “a realistic style pneumatic BB gun” — was found near Achstein’s body.

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Police and other city officials have been understandably reticent about sharing details of a working investigation, and it will ultimately be Commonwealth’s Attorney C. Phillips Ferguson’s decision whether or not to prosecute Officer Babor for the homicide.

That decision is hardly a simple one, even with the presence of a realistic-looking gun. As it turns out, according to the coroner’s report, Achstein was shot in the back. But that information doesn’t necessarily imply any wrongdoing on Babor’s part. There’s just too much that’s unknown right now, except to investigators.

The body-cam footage might not tell the whole story, but it’s sure to tell a compelling part of the story. It’s very likely body-cam video from one or both of the two officers on scene can help settle the conflicts that have arisen in witness testimony since the shooting. And, while it’s certain to be disturbing, the camera footage could help settle the minds of family members and other Suffolk citizens.

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act allows evidence in police investigations to be withheld from the public, which is why folks haven’t yet been allowed to see the video. It’s not uncommon for such evidence to be protected under that exemption even after a case has been effectively closed.

Most citizens recognize a need for active and/or open police investigations to be protected from the potential damage of investigative files being publicly exposed. But when a case has been closed, the rationale for keeping everything secret is a bit harder to explain. And in a potentially explosive case such as a police-involved shooting death, the public’s right to know is even more of an imperative.

We encourage and expect Suffolk police and the city’s commonwealth’s attorney to fully investigate the death of Corey Achstein, and we remain confident the investigation will result in justice for everyone involved. But the community’s response to the decisions made at the end of the investigation — the community’s very trust in the justice system — will be predicated, at least in part, on transparency. Transparency will require, at least in part, the eventual release of the police body-cam video of the incident.