ABINGDON, Va. — A Southwest Virginia family seeking answers in a fatal 2018 officer-involved shooting has asked a court to demand that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office turn over records.
Phillip Cameron Gibson II, 37, of Castlewood, died on May 8, 2018, in Glade Spring, following a lengthy pursuit that began in Abingdon. After the shooting, the Virginia State Police began investigating and turned the findings over to Washington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Cumbow, who cleared the officers of any wrongdoing within two weeks.
Since then, the family has sought body-cam and dash-cam video footage of the shooting to try to clarify questions they have. Sheriff Fred Newman has refused to release the records, even after the family filed an official request under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
On Tuesday, Michelle Castle, Gibson’s sister, filed a petition for mandamus in Washington County Circuit Court. A mandamus is a court order to a government entity requiring it to take some specific act. In this case, Castle is asking the court to order the Sheriff’s Office to release the video in the shooting.
The Sheriff’s Office “has failed to provide [Castle] records relating to the traffic stop and officer-involved shooting” of Gibson after Castle made a request under FOIA, the petition states.
Newman previously responded to Castle’s request in 2018, asserting that his office had discretion not to release the records. The Sheriff’s Office did release a “preliminary investigative report,” the summary of which was fully redacted, the petition states.
On May 9, 2019, Castle’s attorney, John Fishwick, sent a letter to Newman requesting that he be allowed to view records related to the shooting, particularly any video footage of the encounter.
Again, the petition states Newman refused to honor the attorney’s request. In addition, the Sheriff’s Office claimed that the investigation was referred to the VSP, and all details and video would need to be released by the state.
The attorney then submitted a FOIA request to VSP, which indicated that the videos are the property of the Sheriff’s Office.
The Bristol Herald Courier previously filed FOIA requests regarding the video with the Sheriff’s Office and State Police, both of which were denied.
Virginia’s FOIA requires that “all public records shall be available for inspection and copying upon request,” unless release is prohibited by law or the custodian — the Sheriff’s Office, in this case — has properly invoked one of the limited exceptions.
The petition notes the law includes exceptions of criminal investigative files and investigations relating to allegations of wrongdoing by employees of a law-enforcement agency.
The petition claims records related to the initial traffic stop or the officer-involved shooting in the Gibson case are neither criminal investigative files nor records of administrative investigations.
Authorities have said Gibson threatened officers with a gun before they fatally shot him in Glade Spring. Castle and her sister, Paige Fultz, said they believe viewing the video footage would provide answers to what happened to their brother. If it shows he threatened and pointed his weapon at officers, the sisters said the family will move on.
Newman, who previously declined comment on the officer-involved shooting, said Friday that he had not yet been served the petition.
In addition to seeking the video, the petition asks that the Sheriff’s Office pay court costs, including costs and fees for expert witnesses and attorney’s fees and “for any such further relief as this court deems just and proper.”