The news of the killing in her own home of Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth, Texas, by a police officer sent to perform a welfare check rubbed salt in the already raw wound that was opened in my family more than a month ago. Like Jefferson, my sister, Gay Ellen Plack, a Henrico County resident, was shot dead in her own home by police officers sent to perform a welfare check.
This senseless killing of my sister — a mother, artist, community volunteer, active church member, a warm, kind, generous friend and someone suffering from bipolar disorder — exposes deeply serious flaws in the way Henrico County law enforcement officers conduct welfare checks on people suffering from mental illness. This is not just a local problem, it is a serious national problem.
According to The Washington Post, from January 2015 through October 9 of this year, 23% of the people killed by police — or 1,080 people — had signs of mental illness. Gay is one of the many who have suffered this cruel and not-so-unusual fate. On average, every 39 hours someone with signs of mental illness in the United States is killed by law enforcement. This epidemic of executions of people with mental illness must stop.
My sister battled bipolar disorder for decades. Most of the time her medications helped manage her condition. But when Gay visited her psychiatrist the day before she was killed, her medications weren’t working. Her doctor wanted her to go to the hospital, but my sister refused. Gay’s experience with psychiatric wards was often more frightening than helpful. The next day, when her doctor couldn’t reach my sister on the phone, the doctor called police and asked for a welfare check.
When the police arrived at my sister’s home a little after 10:15 a.m., a neighbor happened to be in her own front yard. She walked over and asked the officers why they were there. When they told her, she replied: “She’s not going to answer the door; she’s afraid of the police.”
Sure enough, the officers knocked on the door and received no answer. Instead of leaving, they entered her home, without her consent and without cause, and searched the house, loudly and repeatedly announcing their presence.
My sister, clearly afraid, fled to her first-floor bedroom and locked herself in. When the officers found the locked door, they tried to force their way in. As the police were attempting to enter, Gay apparently grabbed a small axe she had recently purchased along with other camping equipment and retreated into the attached bathroom. One of the officers, gun drawn, tried to enter the bathroom, where my sister was hiding behind the door. She pushed back on the door and exited the bathroom brandishing the small axe.
One of the officers retreated, but the other, apparently fearful of this petite, 57-year-old woman, opened fire. Although he carried a Taser, he made no attempt to subdue her with that. Instead, four shots later, their “welfare check” ended in the most tragic way possible — the death of the person they were supposed to be helping.
By definition, when a welfare check turns into a homicide, something has gone very wrong. Yet, despite the circumstances surrounding this tragic event, the Henrico County Police have been virtually silent, leaving many unanswered questions, including:
- Why did the police believe that they had the right to enter my sister’s house without her permission?
- Why, when they found the locked bedroom door, didn’t they call for assistance in talking to my sister?
- Why did they, instead, decide to break down the door?
- Why weren’t they ready to use a taser or other non-lethal method to subdue her should it become necessary?
- What training, if any, had the officers received in conducting welfare checks for people with mental illness?
- And what, if anything, does the Henrico County Police Department intend to do to prevent future tragedies such as this?
These questions deserve answers, not excuses and not silence. I am sharing this story, as painful as it is to do so, because it is long past time for the leaders of law enforcement organizations to ensure that their officers know how to successfully conduct welfare checks on people with mental illness. In the midst of this terrible anguish for our family, trying to prevent this from happening to other families, like ours and Jefferson’s, is the only way I can think of to support my beloved sister and find some meaning in this senseless and heartbreaking tragedy.
Editor’s note: Henrico County Police say there are no additional updates and that this remains an active investigation.