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New crisis team faces daunting challenges
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New crisis team faces daunting challenges

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After the General Assembly passed the Marcus-David Peters Act last year, and as part of its review of police operations following the George Floyd demonstrations, the Fredericksburg Police Department is launching a pilot program with the Rappahannock Community Area Services Board that will attempt to deal with mental health crises in the city and surrounding communities before they escalate into violence.

Peters was a young Black biology teacher in Richmond who was shot and killed by police in 2018 after he threatened to kill an officer while in the midst of mental breakdown on Interstate 95. After an investigation, and over the family’s objections, the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney deemed the death a “justifiable homicide.”

When does a person with mental health issues go from being a patient to a criminal? The new Fredericksburg Co-Response Pilot Program — which should be operational by early next year, months before the new cop-and-social-worker law goes into effect next July — will attempt to answer that question.

The general idea is that instead of sending police officers to calls involving a mental health crisis, a team consisting of a law enforcement officer and a social worker/therapist will be dispatched with the goal of defusing the situation and getting help for the individual instead of arresting and incarcerating them.

In theory, such early intervention is a great idea. Whether it works in practice remains to be seen. As Fredericksburg Police Chief Brian Layton noted, “We’re starting small, for obvious reasons. There are going to be a lot of lessons learned.”

RACSB told the city council that its goal is “building a robust system of community-based crisis services with equity at all levels,” adding that a triage system will be put in place to determine when sending the crisis team is appropriate. But that will largely depend on the initial 911 emergency call and how police dispatchers categorize it.

Most people don’t call the police when a family member, friend or neighbor is having a serious mental breakdown until they either threaten somebody or actually become violent. But by then, early intervention may be too late.

So in order for this new system to work, the public will have to be educated to seek help before the situation escalates into a violent encounter. But calling the cops on a person who is acting weird but is not violent — and convincing dispatchers that this is indeed an emergency — may be difficult, especially if chronic substance abuse is involved.

It takes time to arrive at the scene of a 911 call. The police officer’s job now is not only to protect the people who called 911, but the social worker as well, or why send a cop in the first place? Does an armed police officer risk escalating the situation by taking the lead, or stand back and let the social worker make the first approach without knowing if it’s safe for them to do so?

Then there’s the confusing problem of trying to combine two very different functions — law enforcement and behavioral therapy. RACSB officials told the city that they believe the pilot program will increase the level of trust between the community and the police. But not everybody shares that view. As one veteran social worker put it, “[We] cannot build trust with people if we respond to a crisis accompanied by police.”

And given the commonwealth’s failure to provide adequate psychiatric facilities, where will out-of-control people go? In June, Alison Land, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services, said that the state’s 10 mental hospitals are either close to or currently exceed patient capacity, describing the current levels as “dangerously high.”

The State Compensation Board estimated that approximately 20% of inmates in Virginia suffer from a mental illness, and about 10% from a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post traumatic stress disorder. Virginia’s prisons have become de facto psychiatric facilities of last resort.

Reducing that percentage while also ensuring that the public is protected will be no easy task. We can only hope that the new local crisis team will be up for such a daunting challenge.

—The (Fredricksburg) Free Lance Star

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