At the invitation of Henrico County police, members of several civic and community groups on Wednesday viewed footage from the body cameras of two officers involved in last week’s fatal shooting of a woman wielding an ax in her home.
“It was heart-wrenching,” Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, said in a phone interview before she later issued a statement by email. “It was extremely difficult to watch.”
While many who saw it didn’t want to comment directly on the content of the footage, all agreed it was a tragic outcome and many were looking for ways to ensure a similar situation doesn’t happen again.
In addition to Thissen’s organization, representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Henrico NAACP, Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, River Road Presbyterian Church and Virginia State Police watched the entirety of footage showing the final few minutes of Gay Ellen Plack’s life. Partial footage was shown to members of the media on Friday; members of Plack’s family have been invited to view it but have not yet seen it.
The Sept. 17 footage shows the officers entering Plack’s home through an unlocked back door and searching the house while repeatedly calling her name and identifying themselves as police. They eventually kick open a locked bedroom door and find Plack in a dark bathroom attached to the bedroom. She emerges silently, swinging an ax. One officer retreats to the adjacent kitchen, while the other is backed into a bedroom wall. Both fire their weapons at Plack.
Plack had long suffered with bipolar disorder, and the officers had responded to her home for a welfare check at the behest of a psychiatrist. She died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen. She was 57 and lived on Huntwick Court in the Wellesley subdivision in Short Pump.
“We have questions about the decisions the officers made, but it would be easy to second-guess their actions after the fact and we don’t want to do that,” Thissen said in her statement, joining the ACLU of Virginia in calling for “a full, fair and impartial investigation into the incident.”
The state branch of the ACLU repeated its prior call, and also urged police to publicly release the bodycam footage and the names of the officers involved, after two staff members watched the footage Wednesday.
The ACLU applauded Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor, who earlier this week called on two outside commonwealth’s attorneys to review the investigation along with her, and Henrico Police Chief Humberto Cardounel Jr. for inviting groups in to see the footage.
“These actions are not enough, however, for full transparency or to assure the public that the investigation of this horrific incident was conducted in an impartial manner. The public trust is more important than any rationale that can be offered for not taking the actions listed above,” Director of Strategic Communications Bill Farrar and Director of Advocacy Jenny Glass said in a joint statement.
Henrico NAACP President Raiford Beasley said Plack’s family should be involved in the conversation about releasing the video publicly.
“I am requesting the community withhold any judgment until the investigation has been completed,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
Thissen said she hopes the investigation will reveal lessons that might prevent a deadly encounter in the future. Plack volunteered at NAMI and its local affiliate, NAMI Central Virginia, leading a weekly art therapy group for others with mental illness.
“This hits home for us, because we interacted with Gay on a weekly basis,” said Mark Richardson, who oversees the local affiliate. “She will be greatly missed, and her passion for helping others will never be duplicated or forgotten.”
Raymond Roberts, head pastor at River Road Presbyterian Church, said he’s not sure why Henrico police reached out to him to view the footage. The two officers do not attend his church, and neither did Plack.
“I saw it as my civic duty to attend — as someone who seeks truth and speaks truth to power,” Roberts said. “I found it very emotional to watch.”
Roberts said he wanted to withhold judgment until more facts were presented, but said he’s more sympathetic toward the officers now than he was going into the viewing. He had initially questioned whether the officers could have fled, which one officer did. The other was cornered in the bedroom, Roberts said.
“The chief of police said they had four seconds, which doesn’t even begin to explain how quickly it all happened,” Roberts said.
He said he believes that had the officers not fired their weapons, the officer he described as cornered would have been seriously injured or killed.
“I thought that showing it to a group of folks — a diverse group — shows an effort at transparency without allowing her death to be sensationalized as a snuff film,” Roberts said. “This is all people knew about her.”
Henrico police on Wednesday also asked Virginia State Police to assist with a review of Henrico’s investigation once completed.