05/16/2007

4 Va. officers shoot mentally ill man

Editor's Note — Officers are increasingly finding themselves challenged with handling calls involving emotionally disturbed people (EDPs). This comes as no surprise given the fact that mental health support budgets continue to be squeezed and treatment and housing facilities continue to be hard pressed to keep their doors open. Here are 5 S.M.A.R.T. tips for approaching the emotionally disturbed.


By Theresa Vargas
The Washington Post

WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Thomas Pierson Sr. spoke of hearing voices and lately would sit by himself in the dark all day, so his family was not completely shocked yesterday when he didn't drop the shotgun after Prince William County police officers surrounded him.

"He wasn't stupid. If you got four officers with weapons around you, and you're told to put it down, you better do it," said his son, Thomas Pierson Jr. "He knew what he was doing."

Four officers fired their weapons almost simultaneously, killing Pierson Sr., 70.

Pierson Jr. said his father had struggled with mental illness for 25 years and was hospitalized at one point. He was a good man most of the time, the younger Pierson said, but his behavior grew strange over the years, and he had never gotten over his wife's death five years ago.

Pierson Jr. said his family does not fault the officers.

"If I was in the same position, I would probably have done the same thing," he said.

Police were called to the home in the 13400 block of Forest Glen Road in Woodbridge just before 7 a.m. by neighbors who awoke to the sound of gunshots. When officers arrived, Pierson stood in his front yard, gun in hand, authorities said. The officers ordered Pierson to drop his weapon, but he showed no signs of complying, instead pointing it at the officers, authorities said.

"Like most incidents that involve deadly force by police, this developed very quickly and was over in seconds," Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said.

After the shooting, Pierson's body lay near the cement stoop of his blue-paneled home, in the same spot where neighbors say he passed the hours sitting in a red plastic lawn chair.

"You could come out at 6:30 in the morning and he'd be there. You could come out at night and he'd be there," said neighbor Mia McGuire, 24.

Everyone in the neighborhood knew of his mental problems, she added.

"He would sit in that chair and just bark at people, stare at you," she said. "I was scared to pass his house."

After her family heard the first gunshot, her 13-year-old brother walked outside to see what was going on and was told by a neighbor to go back inside, where he watched from a front window, she said. He saw Pierson holding a silver gun with a black handle. Two officers stood behind a neighbor's van and another was behind McGuire's car, telling Pierson to surrender, she said.

"He told them, ' You come out with your hands up,' " McGuire said. "He was just cursing and talking gibberish."

The four officers involved in the shooting will be placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, Deane said. The officers had been on duty since midnight and were just finishing up their shift when they responded to the call. When they fired, they believed they were protecting their lives, Deane said.

"It presented a clear danger to them," he said. "It could have easily turned the other way."

Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said that although the investigation is not complete, "the shooting appears to be justified."

Pierson fired two shots before officers arrived, authorities said. A gaping hole could be seen on the rear door of his white car parked in the driveway. Another hole pocked the side of a neighbor's house, but it was unclear whether it was caused by his gun or those of the officers.

Pierson's mail carrier, Robert Booth, said the two talked daily, with Pierson always waiting for him in that chair when he arrived in the afternoon.

Pierson gave him a Bible just last week, Booth said.

"I genuinely liked him, but I knew he was disturbed," Booth said. "Some of the things he said were moral and just. But you'd come back on another day and it was just the opposite."

copyright 2007 The Washington Post

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