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The Tragedy of Gay Plack: How Police Are Trained To Interact With The Mentally Ill

Gay Ellen Plack

Earlier this year, Gay Plack was feeling inspired. 

“She was very interested in joining the cause,” said Dr. Mark Andre Richardson, executive director of NAMI Central Virginia. Richardson knew Plack well. He’d worked with her when she volunteered for NAMI. 

Richardson said Plack was more than an advocate. The former preschool teacher and nurse used her passion for art to start a weekly painting group. It was for people like herself, who were living with a mental illness. 

“She didn’t even ask for people to pay for paint or paintbrushes or canvases,” he said. 

Richardson said it was the kind of group where no one was expected to talk or follow an agenda. 

“[Sometimes] I would pass by and no one would make a sound for the whole hour and a half that they were in there,” he said. “They were just in there painting.”

As the class grew in size, Plack asked NAMI about taking the meet-up out into the community.

And Richardson wanted to help her make that idea a reality. 

But the dream never materialized. 

On September 17th, a routine police welfare check at Plack's home in a  quiet Henrico County neighborhood, ended with the 57-year-old's death.

The officers who shot Plack were cleared this week. 

But the tragedy has members of the community asking how to prevent these deaths moving forward. The Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center estimatesthat people with mental illness are 16 times more likely than others to be killed by police.

“This was an extremely volatile and violent situation that literally unfolded in about four seconds.” Henrico Police Chief Humberto Cardounel said in a public statement recorded in the hours following Plack’s death. 

Plack’s doctor had called 911 because she was worried about her.  

When two officers arrived at her home, she’d barricaded herself in a bedroom. After forcing their way inside, Plack came at them with an axe and was shot in the abdomen. 

Dr. Richardson with the local NAMI chapter was shocked when he heard the news. In the midst of grieving the death of his friend, he was invited to watch the police body camera footage. It wasn’t released to the public, but members of the media, the ACLU and the mental health community were invited to view it. Richardson said he struggled with the idea of watching it, but needed to see what had transpired. 

“The Gay I saw in the video was not the Gay I saw for the last eight months,” he said. “The Gay I saw for the last eight months was happy, secure, peaceful, stable — an asset to the community.”

Still, he questions whether it could have gone differently. 

Chief Cardonel said the officers in this situation had no other option but to use deadly force. And that’s the conclusion prosecutors came to in three separate investigations into the incident. 

In an interview with VPM in October, Cardounel said of the seven or so welfare checks Henrico police do every day, these interactions usually do end differently. 

But he says there’s no typical scenario. And not all of these calls involve someone with a mental illness. 

“It could be that sometimes people just aren’t returning phone calls or don’t want to be found,” Cardounel said. 

According to a department spokesman, since 2012, Henrico Police had only one other incident in which officers resorted to the use of deadly force. That’s when the Department started training in crisis intervention or CIT. 

Every police officer in Henrico County takes a 40-hour class that involves local advocacy groups, doctors and people who have been in crisis themselves. Cindy Wood oversees the department’s Crisis Intervention program. 

“We do an exercise called hearing voices, where our officers and our class personnel can actually wear earphones and hear the voices,” she said. “They can actually try to do basic little tasks while they’re hearing voices, so they can completely understand what’s going on with some of our consumers.”

Veterans are invited to talk to police about the mental health struggles they deal with. Deputy Chief Todd Alvis said it was eye opening.

“To think that our veterans have gone through this and have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and are trying to function and living with this every day,” Alvis said. 

He said officers learn about what can trigger a mental health crisis.  

“If you come in authoritative and start yelling at somebody, that’s an automatic shut down and an automatic trigger that people aren’t going to gain cooperation necessarily,” Alvis said. 

But while officers have training and tools, Cardounel said they can’t prepare for every situation. And dispatchers don’t always relay too patrol officers every detail of a person’s situation. 

“They’re trying to capture what is pertinent,” he said.”They’re trying to capture as much information as they can.”

According to the prosecutor’s investigation, the officers were told that the welfare check involved someone with Bipolar Disorder and paranoia. They were advised to use caution when entering the home, that Plack may attempt to barricade herself. 

Plack’s friend, Dr. Richardson, doesn’t blame Henrico Police for her death. But he would like officers to have as much information as they can get going into welfare checks moving forward. For example, officers talking directly to the person who made the call. 

“The doctor who called for the wellness check, maybe he or she could have gone with the officers for the visit,” Richardson said. “You know, to kind of be the familiar voice or person in the scenario.”

That could be possible, Chief Cardounel said. But officers would still need to enter the space and secure it first.

He said the expectations for law enforcement are constantly changing and growing.  

“But you’ve got to ask the question, is law enforcement truly where that expectation should lie?” he said. 

And right now, Cardounel says people instinctively call police in times of crisis. 

“We’re there 24-hours a day, seven days a week. When folks don’t know where to turn to, most of the time they turn to public safety,” he said. 

Remnants of Plack’s popular art class include postcards with brightly colored sailboats at sunrise, flowers and hummingbirds. Richardson said, in the days after her death, they had to cancel the class. 

“We thought it very important that we reflect and heal from the loss of Gay,” Richardson said. 

But it’s critical that it comes back. Because he said he knows how important it was to the community. 

“I think those individuals built trust with each other. I think they felt free. I think that they really looked forward to coming. I think that it helped many with their mental health journey,” Richardson said. 

They plan to bring the class back in January.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.