VA Police Partner With Mental Illness Experts To Change Their Response

A police unit in Prince William County, Virginia, is co-responding to emergency calls with mental health clinicians to reduce escalated encounters.

VA Police Partner With Mental Illness Experts To Change Their Response

In 2020, the country was in the midst of a reckoning between officers and those they serve. Deaths of people like Daniel Prude, who was in the midst of a mental health crisis, shined a light on police abuse and gaps in training.

"People were in crisis, and I didn't know how to handle them," lieutenant Heather Vance said. "I didn't understand them."

But an idea is taking root across the country that maybe there are certain situations where officers shouldn't be first on the scene — or on the scene at all.

Officers Adam Beard and Andrea Hess are part of a co-responder unit in Prince William County, Virginia, where some officers are paired with mental health clinicians.

"We want them to be as comfortable as possible while still having safety in mind," Beard said.

Heather Baxter oversees the region's implementation of a statewide initiative called Marcus Alert.  

"87% of the calls that they go on do not end in custody," Baxter said. "It's not just a police officer there to keep the safety under control; it's also the mental health clinician there to make sure that you get what it is that you need."

The system is named after Marcus David Peters, a biology teacher killed by Richmond police during what his family calls a mental health crisis.

Marcus Alert goes beyond co-responders: There's the regional call center, where 911 operators decide the severity of the mental health emergency when a call comes into dispatch. Level one and two calls are sent to a regional crisis call center, which conducts additional assessment and offers physical and verbal support with no cops involved.

For levels three or four calls or if police are needed, Baxter says the co-responder team would have a clinician there with them.

The county also uses Smart 911, a nationwide app that allows users to create profiles letting dispatch know of any medical history in the home.

"You don't always remember everything that you need to tell the person on the phone," Vance said. "You're in crisis when you're calling, so this information is already on there without you having to recall it."

1 in 4 fatal police shootings involve people with untreated severe mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. In 44 states, jails or prisons hold more mentally ill people than state psychiatric hospitals.

One reason for the imbalance is the process: Having an officer bring a person to a health care facility is lengthy and requires admission from the facility.

"The officers are physically there with them," Baxter said. "They're watching them go through this. Some people are handcuffed to gurneys in hospitals, and we've had that up to 14 days."

"Officers are sitting with people in the emergency room who need help, who need treatment, but there's a lack of bed space and nowhere for them to go," Vance said.

Lisa Dailey with Treatment Advocacy Center says this can result in the one thing advocates hope to avoid.  

"You can kind of see how from the perspective of law enforcement, it becomes very appealing to arrest that person instead of bringing them for a mental health evaluation because, you know, you bring them to the jail, or you drop them off your back out on the street," Dailey said.

"We're tasked with this very hard decision of there's nowhere for them to go, but we can't let them go home," Baxter said. "For anyone who got into this business because you wanted to help people, this is a very frustrating time."

Dailey says the national bed shortage is one of the systemic mental health issues caused by a lack of funding.

"This population that has been inappropriately criminalized — you can't actually push it back into the behavioral health system until you have a system," Dailey said. 

Baxter says that’s the goal: to get people help before a crisis.

"The hope is it gets stopped at dispatch and never even goes out to police," Baxter said. "Then also giving police a tool other than putting someone in their car and driving into a hospital."