Henrico County’s top prosecutor has cleared the two officers — who remain unnamed — involved in the fatal shooting of Gay Ellen Plack, who suffered from mental illness and was armed with an ax inside her home when she was killed in September.
Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor, who asked her counterparts in Stafford County and Hampton to also review the case, said in a statement attached to a 26-page report that was emailed to reporters just before 5 p.m. Monday : “All three reports unanimously conclude there is no criminal liability on the part of the officers.”
The officers’ names were redacted throughout the entire document, which Plack’s brother called “outrageous.” The brother, Bob Bostock of New Jersey, said he wasn’t surprised by the results, saying that Taylor had made it clear just days after the Sept. 17 shooting “that the officers had done nothing wrong.”
“People with mental illness in the area must be terrified that this can happen to them,” Bostock said during a phone call with a reporter, which is how he learned the findings had been released Monday. “If it can happen to my sister, minding her own business in her own home, it can happen to anyone. ... The people in that community have a right to know the reckless officers who did this.”
Plack, 57, 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.
“While, therefore, no charges will be filed, this was a tragic circumstance and I reiterate my call for a review of mental health policies at every level,” Taylor’s statement read in part.
Footage from the officers’ body-worn cameras from the fatal encounter inside Plack’s home was earlier shown to media members, as well as a select group of Henrico citizens and activists.
The videos showed the officers entering Plack’s home on Huntwick Court in the Wellesley subdivision in Short Pump through an unlocked back door and searching the house while repeatedly calling her name and identifying themselves as police. They eventually kicked open a locked bedroom door — they first tried to open it with a butter knife and one of the officer’s ID cards, according to the report — and found Plack in a dark bathroom attached to the bedroom. She emerged silently, swinging an ax. One officer retreated to the adjacent kitchen, while the other was backed into the bedroom. Both fired their weapons at Plack.
“Approximately four seconds elapsed between the time when Plack first appeared from the bathroom and began advancing toward Officer [name redacted] and the first shot was fired,” the report stated. “Within the next two seconds, Plack stepped back, moved to draw the axe back again, and the officers discharged their weapons.”
Medical personnel also found a cheese knife in Plack’s pocket when she was searched on the way to the hospital. She was shackled after kicking a first responder, according to the report. She died at VCU Medical Center.
Taylor said she does not yet have a final autopsy, toxicology or ballistics reports.
The report showed that only one of the officers, the one in the bedroom with Plack, hit her when he fired his weapon. Each officer fired twice. She was shot in the hands, as well as the fatal shot to the abdomen.
The officer who fatally shot Plack has 34 years of experience and had crisis intervention training. The second officer has more than two years of law enforcement experience and has been with the Henrico Division of Police for five months. He had not completed full crisis intervention training before the shooting.
The report provides a much more detailed account of what led up to the 10:20 a.m. call for service than was previously released.
Plack had visited her psychiatrist the day before she was killed. Her doctor, in an interview with police, said that she was acting paranoid and bizarre, and that the doctor had never seen Plack act that way. Plack refused to go into the office building, saying she could hear sirens responding to a fire inside the building; the doctor recommended the friend who brought Plack take her to the hospital, but Plack refused.
She had been released from Richmond Community Hospital on Sept. 2 after a five-day stay; Richmond police had brought her initially. In August, Plack had voluntarily committed herself for six days, according to the report.
Plack was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010. From that year up until her death, she had had 15 previous incidents with Henrico police resulting in a police report, the report said.
“Those encounters occurred at her current and past residences, as well as in public settings,” the report stated. “There were additional calls for service for mental health interventions, which did not result in formal police reports.”
One of those calls included a welfare check requested by her brother, Bostock, for a suspected suicide attempt, according to the report. Bostock has said his sister had often had encounters with police, and was terrified of them and of being recommitted to a hospital. The officers appeared to have been told this before entering Plack’s home.
“They also were advised that the residence had a ‘hazard message’ associated with the address (this message is used to indicate to any responder to use caution when responding, and to send police on all Fire/EMS calls),” the report said. “Furthermore, the officers were made aware that Plack, identified as ‘a mental health consumer,’ would not allow police to enter and would attempt to barricade herself.”
Taylor and the commonwealth’s attorneys for Stafford and Hampton examined whether the officers violated any law, not only when using deadly force, but also upon entering the home. All of them cited the “emergency” and the “community caretaker” exceptions to the Fourth Amendment, which provides protections against warrantless searches unless there is a genuine threat to someone’s health or safety.
Bostock rejects the idea that the officers had to enter the locked room.
“They had no business going into my sister’s house,” he said. “Then to compound it by breaking down her bedroom door.”
Taylor requested the two outside prosecutors — Eric Olsen of Stafford and Anton Bell of Hampton — review the cases on Sept. 23, about a week after the shooting.
Olsen responded with a three-page analysis four days later in which he spells Plack’s first name incorrectly. Bell’s review was six pages in length and dated Oct. 14.
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, questioned the timing of the release of the reports following re-elections of Taylor and Olsen earlier this month and said she has a hard time upholding the integrity of an investigation where so much is withheld from public inspection.
“We continue to believe that there can be no public trust in the integrity of an investigation where the names of the officers involved and critical evidence from body cameras is withheld from the public even when the investigation is ‘completed,’” Gastañaga said in an email.
She continued: “Best practice is to disclose the names of officers no more than 48 hours after an incident, allowing time for the officers and their families to seek safety if warranted. The continued redaction of the officers’ names from these reports runs counter to that best practice and the best interests of the communities in which these officers serve.”
Representatives from the ACLU were among those shown the body camera footage, and the group has called for its public release ever since.
Bostock said his nephew, Plack’s son, was contacted by a Henrico detective only about 20 minutes before the release of the report on Monday asking him to call.
“If this wasn’t so tragic, it would be laughable,” he said.