A prosecutor in Virginia says a Lynchburg police officer was justified in shooting at a man while trying to take him into custody during a mental health episode and killing a dog the man was holding.
Multiple officers responded to the Cherrywood Suites extended-stay apartments the night of Feb. 25 for at least two calls about a man who was having a mental health episode, according to statements from the Lynchburg Police Department and an investigation report released Tuesday.
One of the callers had just ended a relationship with the man, the report states, and officers said the man was under the influence of multiple drugs, had bladed weapons in the apartment, had a history of violence and recently had become paranoid after having stopped taking psychiatric medications.
The News & Advance of Lynchburg did identify the man because of the mental health nature of the call and the fact he was not charged.
Officers tried to speak with the man to no avail, while others took a woman who called 911 to a magistrate’s office to obtain an emergency custody order, which directs law enforcement to take someone at risk of harming themselves or others into custody and to a medical facility.
While watching the man from outside, one officer “believed he saw a sheath to a knife attached” to the man’s hip, the report states, and later resorted to using "tactical strobe balls" inside the apartment — described in the report as devices that “emit both sound and light used to either drive an individual out of an area or to cover the activity of law enforcement.”
“Several hours” later, police decided sent a tactical team into the apartment to get the man, according to the report. Officer Vernon L. Parrish led the team inside and was the only one with a gun drawn. The other officers bore “non-lethal alternatives,” which weren’t specified in the report.
“Placing one of the non-lethal alternatives at the head of the tactical team, however, would have placed that officer at an unreasonable risk,” the report reads.
Officers told the man to drop the knife and turned the corner into the apartment’s bedroom to find him sitting at the headboard holding a phone in both hands with a dog in his lap. Witnesses claimed the man previously said he and the dog would die together.
When ordered by officers to show his hands, the man "thrust his hand under covers or clothing where it (could not) be seen" and started to pull something out, the report states, at which point Parrish fired the gun once. The bullet grazed the man’s fingers, hit his cellphone and then hit the dog, killing the dog.
The report states the man then covered himself with blankets on the bed as other officers rushed to him; they shocked him with a Taser before taking him into custody and to Lynchburg General Hospital, police said at the time, where he received a mental health evaluation.
Officers found multiple knives and bladed weapons next to the bed within the man’s reach after taking him into custody, the report states. A knife to the left of the bed “may have been in the bed” before officers took him, it reads, though he used his right hand to reach under the covers. The man wasn’t charged as a result of the incident.
Virginia State Police investigated the shooting and ultimately turned over their findings to Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance, who compared it to Virginia use of force law in making his determination.
In the report, Nance stated Parrish had drawn his gun to protect himself since "the tactical team did not know what it was facing." He found Parrish’s actions to be reasonable under the circumstances, given what officers had been told about the man beforehand and the sudden movement of his hand while he was within striking distance of the officers gave Parrish the "legal authority to use a reasonable amount of force to defend himself from a perceived threat."
Nance concluded by stating he won’t be seeking charges against Parrish.
Parrish was placed on restrictive duty the day after the shooting, Lynchburg police said, meaning he took a nonuniformed and nonenforcement role performing administrative tasks. The police department also launched its own internal investigation from the shooting.
According to spokesperson Carrie Dungan, that investigation is ongoing and Parrish remains on restricted duty.