Tazewell, Va. – A special prosecutor has cleared two Tazewell Police officers of claims they used excessive force in an Aug. 11 arrest.
Chuck Slemp, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Wise County and the City of Norton, released the findings Sept. 28 from an investigation concerning the use of force by two police officers from the Tazewell Police Department. Slemp was appointed as special prosecutor to evaluate an incident that occurred on August 11, 2021 following an investigation by the Virginia State Police.
“Since receiving the appointment by the Court to independently review this matter, my office has been working diligently with the Virginia State Police to review the information, assess the facts, conduct our own independent and unbiased review, and thoroughly examine with great care the use of force to determine whether a crime has been committed under Virginia law,” Slemp said. “We find that these officers’ actions were objectively justifiable and not excessive under the law. Therefore, no police officers will be charged as a result o the incident.”
Wise County Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Ken Lammers prepared the final written report following a legal analysis and review of videos provided by citizens, officers’ body camera footage, and other evidence secured by the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Upon a careful legal analysis of Virginia law, Lammers writes, “At all times, the force used was appropriate for the stage of the encounter and the events as they unfolded.”
On August 11, an employee of a business in Tazewell called 911 to report that “a customer inside our store” was “threatening another customer” and that “he doesn’t seem like he’s right in the head.” Tazewell Police Sergeant M. Steele and Officer J. Stevenson responded. Upon responding, Sgt. Steele was informed by a citizen that a man identified as Anthony Fuller was the disruptive customer, had left the store in a pickup truck, and that “It seemed like he was high.”
Officer Stevenson located the pickup truck driven by Fuller and then approached Fuller to investigate. Sgt. Steele quickly arrived thereafter, providing assistance. Fuller refused to identify himself to the officers. During the brief encounter, Fuller manipulated an object in his left pants pocket multiple times. At one point, Fuller appeared to reach into the pocket as he turned away from the officers and leaned into the cab, blocking the view of his hand from the officers.
The officers then attempted to move Fuller away from the cab of the truck, but he refused. At that point, the officers moved forward to take hold of Fuller’s arms. He resisted. Unable to move Fuller away from the vehicle, Sgt. Steele drew his taser and warned Fuller to stop resisting or he would be tased. At that point, Fuller leaned backwards into the cab of the truck and did not comply. The officers provided multiple additional warnings to Fuller before Sgt. Steele stated, “I will not tell you again, turn around.” When Fuller again refused to comply, Sgt. Steele discharged his taser.
When hit by the taser, Fuller charged forward towards the officers and ended up against a police car. A struggle ensued in which Fuller continued to resist, falling to the ground. During the encounter, Fuller grabbed Sgt. Steele’s taser and a pen from Sgt. Steele. Fuller stabbed the Sergeant’s hand, breaking the skin on his middle finger before the pen was taken away.
Ultimately, it took two police officers, one civilian, one department of corrections officer, and two Sheriff’s Department deputies over five minutes to finally bring Fuller under control.
Fuller had a switchblade knife in his front left pocket. An inventory of Fuller’s pickup truck revealed that he had multiple throwing axes and a machete in the vehicle under the driver’s seat. A blood test at the hospital revealed that Fuller had methamphetamine, marijuana, and alcohol in his system.
Slemp explained, “Our law has long recognized that police officers have a right to use some degree of physical force or threat of force when making a lawful arrest or investigatory stop. The use of force must be reasonable and not excessive under the totality of circumstances. A particular use of force is judged based on the perspective of the officer on the scene and the potential threat that a suspect poses to immediate safety of the officers or others.”
Slemp continued, “In this case, these officers were protecting the community from a person who was acting aggressively towards others and in a manner reported to be consistent with intoxication and driving under the influence. The officer’s effort to locate this individual and detain him was made to prevent him from endangering others driving on our highways.”
In conclusion, Slemp stated, “It was Fuller’s actions, by refusing to comply with police orders, manipulating the knife in his pants pocket, and continuing to lean into the vehicle where he had weapons stored, together with his disorderly conduct at the public business and threats to customers, which necessitated the officers’ actions. Therefore, I conclude that these officers acted appropriately and in accordance with the law of our Commonwealth. I further conclude that it was because of their decisive action that day, training and experience, and excellent use of good judgment that innocent lives were not put in danger by the suspect’s erratic behavior.”
Town of Tazewell Police Chief David Mills said, “I appreciate the Virginia State Police and Commonwealth’s Attorney Slemp for their professionalism and independent investigation into this matter and for helping to answer any questions that the public has had about what happened that day.”