Two mental health crises Thursday occurred 5 miles apart but had vastly different outcomes.
In the town of Culpeper, a 24-year-old man who’d barricaded himself in a residence received help.
But in a rural community of Culpeper County, an Army veteran received death.
Donald Francis Hairston, 44, was killed by police during a welfare check at his home, according to a story in the Culpeper Star-Exponent. Hairston met the same fate as a neighbor, Ellis Frye Jr., 62, who also was shot to death by a county deputy under similar circumstances on Thanksgiving.
Frye, like Hairston, was African American.
“There’s lots of questions from the Black community — and not just the Black community,” said Jamie Clancey, a member of the Culpeper Town Council.
Culpeper is among five areas in Virginia hosting pilot programs for the Marcus Alert, a framework for a statewide crisis response system approved this past fall by the Virginia General Assembly. Slated to be fully implemented by July 2026, the alert is named after Marcus-David Peters, who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis.
The law directs the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to work with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and local law enforcement to create the system and coordinate the response to a crisis. But it fails to limit police involvement in situations where there is no immediate safety threat or regulate their use of lethal weapons when responding, as initially proposed.
The outcomes in Culpeper are exactly what were feared by Princess Blanding, Peters’ sister and a candidate for governor. She says the Marcus Alert leaves too much discretion to police, lacks accountability and will perpetuate the sort of inconsistent outcomes evidenced in Culpeper.
Blanding is so unhappy with the legislation bearing her brother’s name that she denounced it during a ceremonial signing of the bill by Gov. Ralph Northam in December. Lawmakers, as they seem to be doing a lot lately, called it “a start.”
The pilot protocols have not been established in the area that includes Culpeper. But Blanding says the pilot would have resulted in the same lethal outcomes for Hairston and Frye, “because it’s so subjective and so watered down.”
An employee in the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office referred my inquiries to the Virginia State Police, which is investigating both shootings at the request of Sheriff Scott Jenkins.
State Police Sgt. Brent Coffey said via email that Hairston barricaded himself inside his residence.
“Despite the deputies’ attempts to communicate with Hairston in an effort to de-escalate the situation, Hairston exited the residence armed with a gun. He discharged the firearm and then pointed the firearm at the deputies. A deputy fired and struck Hairston, who succumbed to his injuries at the scene.”
The town of Culpeper’s Police Department, in a release after Thursday’s incident, said officers forced entry into the barricaded room “and successfully deployed less lethal options,” secured a homemade weapon from the man and took him into custody. The man was eventually transported to Novant Health UVA Culpeper Medical Center for a mental health evaluation.
“We are grateful for this peaceful resolution to such a dangerous and unpredictable situation,” Culpeper Police Chief Chris Jenkins said in the release. “I’m proud of my officers for following their mental health crisis training and making all attempts to de-escalate this situation. We are relieved that this young man is alive and we hope he receives all of the support and services needed to make a full recovery.”
Jim LaGraffe, executive director of Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services, said each mental health crisis is unique; he could not draw any conclusions from events in Culpeper without being at the scene.
But Clancey and other Culpeper residents say the cultures of the town police and county sheriff’s department are starkly different — a reality that buttresses Blanding’s concerns about inconsistencies and uneven applications.
Culpeper town police walked and knelt with Black Lives Matter protesters during a demonstration this past year.
The sheriff’s office, meanwhile, posted on its Facebook page in September that “Antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement is not peaceful and at their heart are violent.” It also posted spurious claims against BLM, including a story — debunked by The Roanoke Times — of a violent attack by Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the Star City.
The sheriff’s office had some trust building to do, even before these two shootings. County families, particularly Black families, will have some hard choices to make the next time a loved one is in the throes of a mental health crisis.
A statewide mental health crisis response system can’t work without trust. And that trust can’t be built on a pile of dead bodies.