Early morning visit by sheriff's deputies raises questions

·6 min read

Aug. 1—MORGANTOWN — At 4:51 a.m. May 21, Monongalia County resident Chin Orih was awakened by a banging on his front door.

About a minute later, there was another knock and the home's doorbell went off. As Orih was getting dressed, his wife checked the home's security cameras and saw the house surrounded by sheriff's deputies with their guns drawn. One deputy with a rifle was hiding behind a tree in his backyard.

Orih turned on the front porch light and went outside. At this point, a deputy, for the first time, identified who was at the door.

"Sheriff's office ! Mon County Sheriff's Office !, " the deputy shouted after the porch light illuminated. He shouted identification twice more before Orih opened the door.

Orih asked the deputies why they had their guns drawn and to put them away. Upon seeing Orih, a deputy radioed 911 that the "older Black male " with a "bald head " did not match the suspect's description.

The deputy asked if Orih owned a blue Chrysler Town & Country van. He responded yes, for work, and said it was parked at a garage on Chestnut Ridge. Orih was told there was a shooting in Fairmont and a partial plate matched a van registered to him.

Orih shared his story publicly on Facebook, including videos of the incident recorded on his home security camera. He also spoke with The Dominion Post for this article.

Monongalia County Sheriff Perry Palmer showed The Dominion Post bodycam footage from a deputy on scene and discussed the early morning visit, as well.

"I could have been shot dead at my own house this morning. The system is fundamentally flawed, " Orih posted on Facebook May 21. "At that hour, the reasonable thing for me to have done (not knowing who was at my door absent of a surveillance system) would have been to grab my gun to go see. The fact that they ALREADY had their guns drawn would have ended my life. That is how fast it happens ! Based on the reason they were at my house to begin with, I cannot for the life of me figure out why they felt it was necessary to have their guns drawn. At best, they came to ask me a question."

Orih and his wife arranged a meeting with the sheriff to answer questions he had—such as why deputies didn't identify themselves right away, why their weapons were drawn, why it was necessary to come to his house so early in the morning, and what precautions were taken with his family's safety in mind.

"There was nothing about the meeting that was satisfying to us at all, " Orih told The Dominion Post. "Not his body language, not his spoken words, not his demeanor, nothing. And he is the leader of the sheriff's department."

To be clear, Orih said his issue is not with law enforcement overall, which he supports, and he holds no animosity toward the individual deputies who came to his house. Once Orih was outside, he said everything was cordial. His issue is with why and how they came to his home in the first place and the way Palmer handled it afterwards.

"This, to me, is about leadership, " Orih said. "I think the leader, which is Perry Palmer ... I think he has miserably, miserably, failed in his leadership role."

Palmer told The Dominion Post his meeting with Orih was "absolutely not a bother."

"We understand his concern and I'm not saying that I couldn't see what he was feeling at that time, " Palmer said. "I was just trying to get across to him our point of view of what transpired that evening. There was no disrespect there."

Palmer said the call dictates how officers respond and he thinks the deputies responded appropriately. He said this was a "knock and talk."

"At that high level of what the call came in for (a possible shooting suspect), that was a higher alert, " Palmer said.

Chief Deputy of Law Enforcement Mark Ralston said, given the information they had, Orih's van was really the only option and his was the only home visited. The information they had—a shooting one county away, make, model, partial plate match—met all the criteria to go check.

"We just knew there was a shooting, " Ralston said. "If this was a possible location we have got to establish whether the suspect is there or not. We were at that address because the registration return provided by Marion County indicated that address. There's nothing more or nothing less to it than that."

A knock on the door at 5 a.m. is understandably unnerving and uncommon, but "it does happen, " Ralston said.

Deputies hid out of view of the door after knocking and did not initially identify themselves because they didn't know if someone was home or if the shooting suspect was inside, Palmer said.

And if Orih hadn't had security cameras and come outside with a gun ? Ralston said the department's policy and training is to not use deadly force unless confronted with deadly force.

Orih said he doesn't understand how someone can watch the videos and not acknowledge mistakes were made. He also doesn't want the focus to be on his family. If this could happen to them because it's standard procedure, that means it could happen to any family in the county.

Professor James Nolan, a former police officer and FBI agent whose work at WVU involves re-imaging policing as focused on creating safe communities, said the interaction between the sheriff's office and the Orihs happened at a time "of wide distrust in the police."

It's easy to see why the police would take precautions while investigating a crime as serious as a shooting, but there is less understanding from the perspective of the person being investigated how dangerous it is, Nolan said.

Nolan said it's easy to see how tragedy could happen in highly charged events such as these. The police are on high alert and the person coming to the door doesn't understand the circumstances behind the visit or the perceived danger surrounding the situation.

Nolan said, "In short, the police profession is mistaken for the law enforcement approach. Law enforcement is a tool but has become the full identity of local police and sheriffs. The police see themselves as law enforcement as a carpenter might see himself as a nail hammer. But carpenters must build something. The police do not. The law enforcement approach to policing shapes the mindset of officers and how they interpret situations like this one. Everything is viewed as a potential danger and every person a potential 'criminal.'

"If the goal of policing would shift to building relationships so that places are safer, there would be greater emphasis on policing to understand Orih's perspective and to restore relations with him and others in the community. But this kind of relationship-building is not part of the law enforcement approach or the mindset of officers. Instead, they focus only on 'instructing' the public of their responsibility to investigate and to stay safe, never really working to mend relations or build strong, safe places."

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