Three Washington County, Va., deputies are on administrative leave following the death of a man who was shot after a Tuesday standoff with authorities — the second deadly shooting by a county deputy in less than two weeks and the third officer-involved shooting death in the region in less than two months.
Sheriff Fred Newman said Wednesday, one day after Dennis “Dean” Morrell, 55, died following a four-hour standoff at his home on Rocky Hill Road, that officers can shoot to kill if they or another individual are in immediate danger of being seriously wounded or killed.
More details have emerged about what happened Tuesday. The incident began after officers went to the residence to check on Morrell’s welfare at the request of a family member. Morrell, however, was not home. He soon arrived, Newman said, went around the police cruiser, and toward the home. Newman said the officers tried to stop Morrell, but he went inside.
“He went into the house and made some statements apparently that he wasn’t going to listen to us,” Newman said. “They (officers) saw what appeared to be a weapon.”
Deputies knew Morrell’s wife was inside the home, Newman said, and thought the situation had developed into a hostage incident. Negotiations started immediately. The woman eventually left, but the sheriff said he isn’t sure whether she left on her own or her husband let her go.
About 20 to 25 phone calls were made to the residence in an attempt to engage in a conversation, the sheriff advised.
“We were never able to do so,” he said.
Around 3 p.m., officers worked to obtain an emergency custody order.
“That is an order that allows law enforcement to take an individual into custody for an evaluation,” the sheriff said. “Based on his actions and statements from family, we thought that something was not going very well with him and that needed to be addressed.”
Once officers determined that negotiations were not working, they deployed tear gas. A few minutes later, Newman said Morrell partially exited the basement door and then finally fully appeared.
The sheriff said officers used two bean bags after they observed a weapon in his right hand. Newman said bean bags are used to stop an individual, but do not penetrate the skin.
“We deployed two of them, which I believe struck his left side and left leg, in that area,” Newman said. “They had no effect on him. At which point in time, he raised his weapon, turned to the left, where my deputy was at, and pointed his weapon at my deputy. At that point in time, shots were fired.”
Newman could not comment on the number of shots fired. Morrell was transported by ambulance to Bristol Regional Medical Center, where he later died.
Virginia State Police are investigating the latest officer-involved shooting. VSP spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Wednesday that Morrell’s body was being taken to Roanoke for an autopsy. She could not comment further on the investigation, but said officers will submit their findings to the commonwealth’s attorney.
Tuesday’s death follows two other recent officer-involved shooting deaths. The first occurred May 29 near Blountville, Tenn. Ransom D. McCoy, 45, was shot and killed by police after a pursuit involving officers from multiple jurisdictions that started in Washington County, Va., and ended in Sullivan County Tenn.
On June 27, Washington County deputies responded to a domestic call near Damascus, Va., where Michael W. Huffman, 56, was shot and killed by an officer.
In all three cases, police said the men threatened officers.
“What we tried to do yesterday was we attempted to negotiate with the individual,” Newman said. “That was unsuccessful.”
The sheriff added that officers decided not to enter the home.
“He had a weapon in the house and I didn’t want to engage my personnel inside that residence for a gun battle,” he said.
Newman said once an individual threatens to harm officers and deputies are in fear of being injured or killed, law enforcement officers are advised to shoot to kill.
“When you get to that point, it is a very serious situation,” he said.
No local law enforcement agencies shoot to injure, Newman noted.
“If you happen to miss that individual, say you are aiming at an arm or a leg and you miss, then you just opened yourself up,” Newman said. “That’s why we call it deadly force.”
Geller said Tuesday’s standoff and the Damascus shooting remain under investigation.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation continues its investigation into the May 29 officer-involved shooting death.
The deputies who were present during Tuesday’s incident are on administrative leave pending an internal investigation and discussions with counselors, the sheriff said.
According to an obituary, Morrell was born in Bristol, Tenn., had been a 15-year employee of Bolling Construction Co., and was a member of River Bend Church.
Graveside services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Shipley Cemetery. The family will receive friends from 6-8 p.m. Friday at Weaver Funeral Home.