In her 12 years on the job, Wilson, 36, had encountered suicidal people. But she’d never confronted anyone on the verge of carrying out the threat.
“All I thought . . . was, ‘I got 30 seconds to think about what I’m going to talk to this guy about,’ ” said Wilson, who had no idea whether he was armed.
She had a .40 caliber semiautomatic sitting on her right hip and a black Taser strapped to her left leg, but she wasn’t counting on using either. This, she thought, was going to take talking.
Six months earlier, Wilson had been back at the county police academy for a weeklong class on dealing with people in mental crises. Patience, she’d been told, is essential. So is taking the time to connect.
Now, as dusk fell on Fort Belvoir, she was going to find out whether the training would make a difference for this one man.
“Game on,” Wilson said to herself as she prepared to scale a dirt hill leading up to the dilapidated track bed.
Volatile and sometimes deadly confrontations between the police and the mentally ill have been more common since state psychiatric hospitals began to discharge large numbers of patients in the 1960s and 1970s.
In response, police departments throughout the United States, including those in Montgomery, Arlington and Fairfax counties and the District and Alexandria, have launched “crisis intervention” training to create cadres of officers with more than just an hour or two of mental health training.
Now, with financially strapped state and local governments cutting community-based mental health programs, the pressures on police could mount as more people become untethered from treatment.
Perhaps more than any other police force in Virginia, Fairfax’s has seen up-close the fallout from a shrinking mental health system.
It was along Route 1 that an unarmed 52-year-old man with mental illness was shot and killed by police in 2009 after he had ripped flowers out of a planter. And it was outside the county police station in Chantilly that two officers were killed almost five years ago, shot by a disturbed 18-year-old whose family had struggled to obtain care for their son.
Never before had a Fairfax officer been slain in the line duty.
Wilson was working that day and remembers the harrowing transmissions that came over the radio after gunfire erupted outside the Sully station May 8, 2006.
Detective Vicky O. Armel and Officer Michael E. Garbarino were mortally wounded. So was the shooter, Michael W. Kennedy, who was felled by other officers.