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Families' Pleas for Help End in Gunfire
Pr. George's Police Eschew Nonlethal Options

By David S. Fallis and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 3, 2001

Third of four articles

Winona Randall rushed to her neighbor's home to call police. Please come help my son, she said; he is mentally ill and needs to go to the hospital.

In the kitchen of her Fort Washington home just minutes before, Louis Eugene Randall Jr. had been chopping strawberries when, suddenly and silently, he began to stab a paring knife into a plastic sugar canister.

She knew that her son, who was manic-depressive, needed medication.

Two Prince George's County police cars met her outside her house on Trafalgar Court that evening seven weeks ago. She explained that her son was acting bizarrely but that he was alone and had no guns.

"I said, 'He is a good person, he is just off his medicine. So don't go in there and shoot him up or nothing,' " she recalled.

The police reassured her: Officers are trained not to shoot. They can use nonlethal force.

"One of the policemen even showed me he had a pellet gun," Randall said. "He told me, 'We won't hurt him. We'll just hit him with this pellet gun.' "

By the time it ended, as many as 50 police cars lined the street. Police snipers had shot out street lamps. Two military-style assault vehicles sat outside, and a helicopter circled above the house.

And Louis Randall, 37, lay in a back bedroom, shot eight times by police.

Shootings of the mentally or emotionally disturbed -- at least six dead and six wounded since 1990 -- are one aspect of a broader pattern of gunfire by Prince George's officers over the past decade.

Police Seek Nonlethal Options

By any measure, Prince George's police have shot and killed people at rates that exceed those of nearly any other large police force in the nation. All 122 shootings that resulted in death or injury in the past decade have been ruled justified by top police officials.

Seven of the mentally distraught people shot by Prince George's police were people whom officers initially were called to help.

The mentally ill and emotionally disturbed, experts said, should be handled with restraint and patience by officers trained to defuse encounters through soothing talk and reassurance. Guns should remain holstered, they said, and drawn only as a last resort.

Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell said his officers have been retrained in the past year as part of an effort to reduce the use of deadly force. The department, he said, has given them the tools to do so: containment nets, straitjackets and guns that shoot pepper spray, rubber bullets, socks and beanbags.

The department reports that since September, it has ended more than 30 confrontations with people by wrapping them in canvas restraints or subduing them with pepper spray.

"We have had a massive, massive training effort in reducing and minimizing police-contact shootings," Farrell said.

Officers now are trained to better communicate with the people they encounter, to "treat them like you would want your mother treated," Farrell said. Police also are taught to de-escalate hostile situations and to "cover and conceal" themselves.

For the mentally distraught, Farrell has assembled an on-call squad of outside mental health experts -- a "conflict management team" -- to help in such encounters.

But in three shootings this year -- all of which were of the mentally ill -- nonlethal tactics have given way to police gunfire.

In March, police shot and critically wounded a 20-year-old Landover man who they said shot at them as they attempted to question him. The man had a history of mental problems, police said.

In April, an off-duty officer shot and wounded an unarmed, "belligerent and wild" Clinton man as he wandered the streets wrapped in a blanket. Police said he was suspected of vandalizing the officer's car, and she shot him because she thought he was reaching for a weapon. He, too, had a history of mental problems, police said.

In May, police shot Louis Randall.

Anthony M. Walker, president of the Prince George's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, defended the shootings, saying officers had no choice.

"I don't think we'll ever be in a good position to deal with the mentally ill," he said. "We don't know how to deal with these people. Society handed us the problem to deal with."

'You'll Have to Shoot Me' Dwayne K. Waiters was acting strangely, his behavior inexplicable. For much of the evening of Oct. 9, 1997, he ran in and out of his Landover apartment, poured water on his head and ignored his family's pleas to explain what was going on.

Relatives described Waiters, 21, as a clean-cut, church-going college student with no criminal record. They said he had no history of mental illness but could offer no explanation for his actions that night. An autopsy would determine that he wasn't drunk or on drugs. The police would describe him later as "deranged."

"I didn't know what was wrong with him," said his sister, Senee P. Waiters. "I thought somebody had slipped him a mickey."

The family grew more worried after Waiters smashed a window. They asked a woman who lived upstairs to call 911. At 11:36 p.m., the woman told a 911 operator that she didn't know what the problem was, only that she had been asked to call for help, according to a recording of the call.

Cpl. Robert P. Hettenhouser and Officer Corey T. Joyner were dispatched to investigate a call for "unknown trouble," records show. Hettenhouser, with seven years on the force, was the senior partner to Joyner, a rookie.

Both officers declined to comment for this article. Their accounts of what happened that night are drawn from court documents and police files obtained by The Washington Post.

Hettenhouser and Joyner arrived at the apartment six minutes after the 911 call. They said they saw blood outside the building and heard "a loud disturbance inside." They drew their 9mm Beretta pistols and burst through the door.

In the living room, the police saw Robert C. Waiters Sr. sitting on his son's chest, pinning his arms and legs on the carpet. He said it was the only thing he could think to do to keep his son from hurting himself until help arrived.

At first, the officers aimed their pistols at Robert Waiters and ignored his son.

"They were pointing their guns at me," Robert Waiters said. "I kept saying, 'This is my son, this is my son!' But if I hadn't gotten up, they would have shot me."

As Hettenhouser and Joyner ordered his father to sit on a sofa, Dwayne Waiters ran into the kitchen. The officers followed and said they shouted at him to put up his hands.

In response, Waiters cursed and said, "You'll have to shoot me then."

The officers obliged, shooting him a dozen times. They said they reacted in self-defense after he grabbed a knife from the counter and lunged at them, all in one motion.

The autopsy found that four bullets struck Waiters in the back; the rest pierced his chest, abdomen and arms. Half the shots were fired from less than two feet away and left powder burns on Waiters's skin.

Prince George's officers are required to fill out a form called a Discharge of Firearms Report immediately after a shooting. Experts said it is important to complete the reports promptly so that officers don't have the opportunity to get their stories straight if they have done something wrong.

In written statements given a few hours later, Hettenhouser and Joyner spoke with one voice when they explained why they had to kill Waiters.

"The suspect ignored all verbal commands. He reached for a knife and fearing for my safety I fired my weapon several times in self-defense," Hettenhouser wrote.

"The suspect ignored all verbal commands. He reached for a knife and fearing for my safety I fired my weapon several times in self-defense," Joyner wrote.

The one-page statements were virtually identical -- word for word -- down to the same scratched-out corrections.

More than three years later, however, under cross-examination by a lawyer hired by Waiters's family, both officers acknowledged that they never saw him touch a knife.

When asked if Waiters ever had the knife in his grasp, Hettenhouser said: "I don't know, I couldn't tell you."

Added Joyner: "I don't know if he actually got it in his hand or not."

Detectives found a butter knife next to the kitchen sink. Waiters's fingerprints were not on it. The family's lawsuit is pending.

Two years after Waiters's death, Hettenhouser became involved in another fatal shooting. In his career, he has been involved in the fatal shootings of three unarmed men, records show. He also has fired his gun at two other people, but missed.

Police Forcing Confrontations

R.O. Norman's world was collapsing one morning in April 1995 when he called his therapist and told her that he had taken a lethal dose of lithium and had a gun.

She called police, concerned for the welfare of her patient, who suffered from manic-depression, or bipolar disorder. Norman fled his parents' Beltsville home, and when he returned hours later, so did police. Officers blocked his escape route with their cars as he attempted to drive away.

"I got out of the truck and they all sat up, drawing their weapons, yelling at me to 'Drop my weapons!' " Norman said.

Arms in the air, Norman shouted that he had no weapons, but officers continued to scream, "Drop the gun!"

"I finally decided this is the way I can get them to kill me," Norman said. "So I jumped up and down waving my arms around, yelling, 'Go ahead and shoot me!' "

Seconds later, Cpl. Richard L. Hart Jr. responded, firing a single shot into Norman's belly.

Officers again ordered Norman to drop the weapon he didn't have, he said, before they rushed in, wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him.

The shooting, police said, was justified. Hart, who did not respond to requests for an interview, remains on the force.

"They went on the assumption that I had a weapon," said Norman, now 39, who added that he has fully recovered from his illness, "and from that point on, they were dead set that I was going to have a weapon -- even though I was holding my hands out for them to see."

Nationally, the accuracy of data on police shootings is poor, and there is even less information on how many shootings involve the mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. But experts who study the use of deadly force say police are far more likely to encounter a disturbed or deranged person than an armed robber.

"The pattern I typically see is the paranoid schizophrenic who is acting out in the home or on the street. But they never actually attack anyone," said James J. Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University. "The cops are called, force a confrontation and blow him away."

Police typically try to intimidate a rational person into submission, Fyfe said.

"But you can't do that with these guys. The standard is, you keep a distance from them . . . and take as much time as is necessary. There's no reason to force a confrontation."

Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

Essie Montgomery called Prince George's police to her Forestville home Jan. 8, 1999, to file a missing person's report on her son, who was 39 and suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Phillip Mickens had left the house the previous night for a walk and hadn't returned.

Montgomery asked an officer about a news story of a man shot by police outside a liquor store: Could it have been her son?

No, the officer assured her. Police knew whom they had shot, and it was not Phillip Mickens.

Almost three weeks later, on Jan. 27, police came to her home again. An investigator told her that her son had been found: He was the man shot by police, after all, and he was in the hospital.

"I just broke down," Montgomery said.

During his late-night walk Jan. 7, Mickens encountered Cpl. Donald W. Bell as he sat in his patrol car outside a liquor store at 7619 Marlboro Pike, where he was moonlighting as a security guard.

Bell, police said, felt something strike his vehicle. When he climbed out, Mickens hit the officer on the head with a "log," cutting him, police said.

In response, Bell shot Mickens five times because he "feared for his life," according to court records. Bell declined to comment. Police refused to disclose records in the case and provided no description of the log.

Mickens was hospitalized for several months, his family said. Doctors removed his spleen, and his right arm now dangles uselessly at his side, his mother said.

Police initially confused Mickens with another man before finally identifying him through fingerprints, Montgomery said.

Mickens, now 42, was charged with assaulting the officer. He has been hospitalized as the courts consider whether he is competent to stand trial, records show.

Montgomery said that her son has battled schizophrenia most of his adult life, bouncing in and out of mental hospitals, but that he is not violent.

"I think you've heard of being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Montgomery said. "I think that's what happened to Phillip that night out there."

'She Didn't Stand a Chance'

Police knew Julie Marie Meade. They knew the teenager was suicidal. And they knew that she wanted officers to kill her.

On Nov. 21, 1996, Meade, who suffered from disabling panic attacks, called police to her mother's apartment in Laurel. For the fourth time in two months, the 16-year-old high school student said she wanted to die.

"She said that she is going to point a gun at the police when they pull up," a dispatcher radioed to officers, "so that they will shoot her."

Officers met in a nearby parking lot. Dispatchers told them that Meade had threatened to shoot anybody who came in the front door and that if police weren't there in five minutes, she was "gone."

"We decided to basically surround the building to make sure she wouldn't jump out the back door," Officer Joung Lee later testified in a court hearing.

Lee and at least four other officers, weapons drawn, surrounded the apartment. Police told Meade to put the gun down and come out.

As Meade walked outside with a black pellet gun clenched in her hand, Lee realized that she was the rebellious teenager he'd interviewed four weeks before after she left school threatening suicide, records show.

Meade took a step, raised the gun and shouted for police to shoot.

"They said, 'Stop! Don't walk!' She took another step, and they shot her -- pow, pow, pow, pow, pow," said Derrick Fraley, a neighbor who said he saw the incident unfold from his balcony. "It was like [the police] knew everything was going to go down the way it did. She didn't stand a chance."

Meade was fatally wounded, shot 15 times in the head, arm and leg.

The five officers who shot at Meade later filed disability claims with the state Workers' Compensation Commission, citing stress and emotional trauma.

In a commission hearing, Lee testified that he had recurring nightmares about Meade's death and hallucinated about barricading himself in the police department. In December 1998, he requested an emergency hearing, saying he had been ordered back to work against his psychiatrist's advice. He is no longer on the force, records show.

The other four officers remain on duty. None of the five responded to letters and phone calls seeking comment.

"They knew it was someone in trouble. She was calling them to come out and kill her," said Meade's mother, Gloria Hardman, who was at work at the time. "And that's exactly what they did."

Cases such as Meade's are typical of "suicide by cop," a documented phenomenon, said Lou Reiter, a former Los Angeles deputy police chief who trains and consults with police departments on the use of deadly force.

The mistake officers often make, he said, is to respond aggressively, which provokes suicidal people instead of calming them.

"We don't have to rush to the scene and accommodate them," Reiter said.

'I Knew I Had to Kill This Man'

Nathan L. Strother's mother called police to her Upper Marlboro home Dec. 12, 1992, after her son threatened family members and said he was coming over to kill himself.

Police Cpl. Ray A. Evans was one of the first of several officers to respond. He found Strother in an idling, locked Buick Regal in the driveway. Strother revved the engine, turned up the radio and gently bobbed his head to the beat, ignoring the officer's attempts to get him out of the car.

In a recent interview, Evans said he didn't see a weapon but feared that Strother was armed.

"I'd already ascertained the dude was nuts," Evans recalled.

Strother swung the car around in the muddy yard, spinning its tires before coming to rest again in the driveway. Officers surrounded him. It was growing dark, and Evans said he decided he could not allow Strother to escape. "At some point, I knew I had to kill this man," he said.

Evans said he was standing in front of the car when it suddenly lurched forward. He said he jumped, firing his gun through the driver's side window, striking Strother in the chest. Sgt. Thomas P. Connolly Jr. and Officer Kenny Seibert also opened fire.

"He put the car in drive and bam!" Evans said. "When I shot him, the car stopped. . . . I didn't want to do this -- I had to do this."

Altonell Mumford said that she had a clear view from her home across the street and that no one was standing in front of Strother's car when he was shot. "The car jerked, and they opened fire," she said.

Strother died on the eve of his 26th birthday. His family sued the police in federal court for wrongful death. In 1995, county lawyers settled the lawsuit and, as they have in other, similar cases, kept the terms secret. Strother's family did not respond to requests for interviews.

The police department ruled the shooting justified. In depositions taken for the lawsuit, however, police described tactical mistakes.

One officer said his partners put themselves in harm's way, where Strother's car could strike them. He also said they brandished guns and screamed at the suicidal man for up to 15 minutes.

Connolly, who declined to comment, is now a major, and until recently was Farrell's chief of staff. Seibert, who did not respond to interview requests, is a corporal.

Within six months of the shooting, Evans used his police pistol in two attempts to kill a Bethesda businessman in a failed murder-for-hire scheme. In 1995, he pleaded guilty to assault with intent to murder and other charges and was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

'They Entered for His Own Safety'

Louis Randall's slide into mental illness became apparent to his family after his discharge from the Navy more than 10 years ago. His mother said military doctors called one day to say that her son was in a Bethesda psychiatric ward.

Doctors diagnosed manic-depressive illness and began treatment. In April, he moved back in with his mother in Fort Washington.

He spent the days watching television, cleaning the house, gardening or, when he grew agitated, taking walks.

By early May, however, he had missed medical appointments, and his mother was worried. She said she called his doctor, who told her that if her son's behavior worsened suddenly, she should ask police to take him to a hospital.

On May 10, Winona Randall came home from work at the University of Maryland and found Louis sitting on the couch. "He asked me if I had found a husband yet, and I laughed and asked him if he had found a wife," she said.

Little else was said, and about 9 p.m., he began to prepare strawberries with sugar. As she chatted on the phone, Louis acted agitated, plunging the paring knife into the sugar canister.

That's when she called police.

In a written report, officers said Louis "violently shut the front door . . . turned off the lights and refused any communication." Police decided the situation was a "barricade," an officer wrote.

Outside the house, police conferred with Shawn Randall, Louis's younger brother, who arrived after his mother called him about the emergency.

"They waited a little bit and they talked to the sergeant. They said they were going to call the SWAT team," Shawn Randall said, "and that once they made that phone call, there was no turning back."

Police asked for a diagram of the home's interior. The family handed over keys to the front door and asked officers not to break it down. Winona and Shawn Randall were taken to a police car, where they sat as the standoff escalated.

"They just kept telling us, 'We are trained for this, we are prepared.' They said they were not going to hurt him. . . . After a while, we were convinced," Shawn Randall said.

Finally, about 3 a.m., he said, officers pulled an assault-style vehicle onto the street as a helicopter circled overhead.

Police broke in through the back door. Soon after, family members saw a helicopter land in a nearby park. It was used to transport Louis to Prince George's Hospital Center, they later learned.

Winona and Shawn Randall were taken to a police station. Detectives, she said, refused to tell them what had happened. She heard that her son had been shot from a co-worker, who saw it on the morning news.

"I asked the detectives 'Why didn't you tell me?' " Winona Randall said. "They wouldn't say anything."

Police said officers had summoned the agency's "conflict management team" but were unable to contact Randall by bullhorn or telephone.

The emergency services team -- a SWAT unit -- entered the home about 3 a.m. One of its officers was armed with a gun that fires rubber bullets. Police said they found Randall in the back bedroom, clutching a "13-inch kitchen knife."

He ignored their commands to drop the knife and instead lunged at police, forcing Cpl. William M. Peaco to shoot real bullets, police said.

Peaco did not respond to requests for an interview. Police officials said they had no time to use the rubber bullets.

Police charged Randall with first-degree assault and possession of a deadly weapon. Randall, who was first hospitalized in critical condition, has improved slightly, his family said.

Chief Farrell said police went into the house after they decided that they couldn't wait any longer -- for Louis Randall's sake.

"They entered for his own safety as much as anything else. The guy was completely non-communicative," Farrell said. "They didn't know if he was alive or dead or whatever.

"They are in there to save a life. Which is what they did."

Staff writer Jamie Stockwell and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

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