Biting the Hand

Princess Blanding
Photo credit: Joe Mahoney, Richmond Times-Dispatch

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

Earlier this week, the governor had a ceremonial signing for the Marcus David Peters bill. This is the legislation that establishes a system to alert authorities of someone in a mental health crisis in order that mental health professionals can respond rather than just police. It is named after a young Richmond man who was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was shot and killed while attacking a policeman.

At the signing ceremony was Princess Blanding, Peters’ sister. She had been the most active and vocal supporter and advocate for such legislation. If you thought she expressed her gratitude to the Governor and the legislature for enacting the far-reaching legislation, you would be wrong.

In her remarks at the ceremony, addressing the Governor and legislators associated with the bill, she said, “Please take a moment to pat yourselves on the back for doing exactly what this racist, corrupt, and broken, I also add, system expected you to do: make the Marcus Alert bill a watered down, ineffective bill that will continue to ensure that having a mental health crisis results in a death sentence.”  (The video of her remarks is here.)

And what are her specific complaints? According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she cited the following areas in a phone interview after the news conference:

Police role—In the bill she supported, health professionals would take the lead in responding to mental health crisis calls and police would serve as “back up if the scene becomes unstable or unsafe.” Furthermore, law-enforcement members of the community care (crisis response) teams could not carry lethal weapons, wear law-enforcement uniforms, or use marked police vehicles. In the bill that passed, law enforcement would still serve as back-up when a community care team responds, but the legislation also calls for the development of protocols and training for the responses by law-enforcement when “diversion to the comprehensive crisis system is not feasible.” Although the law emphasizes de-escalation and minimum use of force and encourages consideration of not using uniformed officers and marked police cars, it does not prohibit law-enforcement officers from carrying lethal weapons, wearing uniforms, or using marked vehicles.

Time line for implementation—The original bill would have required every locality to be participating in a Marcus Alert system that used a community care team by January 1, 2022. The enacted legislation phases in a roll-out, with all areas of the state served by a community care or mobile crisis team by July 1, 2026.

Disjointed application—The original legislation called for all localities, either individually or in conjunction with one or more other localities, to establish a Marcus Alert system and community care team. The enacted legislation places the responsibility on the state Department of Behavioral Health and Disability Services to develop the system in each community services board region.

Del. Jeff Bourne and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, both of Richmond and sponsors of the legislation favored by Blanding, did not show much spine in responding to Blanding’s attacks and in defending the enacted bill. “This bill doesn’t go far enough,” said McClellan. “While this is a first step, it cannot and will not be the last.” Bourne declared that the legislature may have to revisit the law to “course correct and make improvements. We’re going to get this right.”

My Soapbox  While this legislation is loaded with good intentions and establishes a policy that is pointed in the right direction, I continue to feel that its proponents have overestimated its ultimate effect. Community care teams, headed by mental health professionals backed up by law enforcement, may certainly succeed in de-escalating situations involving a mental health crisis and thereby avoiding tragic consequences. However, to think that a community care team serving a community services board region that is comprised of several large rural counties can respond quickly enough to any such situation anywhere in the region is wishful thinking. The same concern is probably applicable to a large urban area. The legislation itself recognizes this reality by requiring the development of protocols and training for law-enforcement officers that provide for “a specialized response by law enforcement designed … to ensure that individuals experiencing a mental health, substance abuse ,or developmental disability-related behavioral health crisis receive a specialized response when diversion to the comprehensive crisis system is not feasible.” Even then, unless every law-enforcement officer receives such training, there is no guarantee that a trained officer will be the one responding to a call or incident involving someone in a mental health crisis that was not recognized when the call came in or the incident occurred. In fact, that was the very situation involving Marcus David Peters.

Although Ms. Blanding is upset that the original bill was amended, the restricted role of law-enforcement in that bill was unreasonable and the timetable for implementing its provisions was unrealistic. The enacted bill is a significant improvement. Because Ms. Blanding did not get exactly what she proposed, she rejected the system as “racist and corrupt.” It is this kind of arrogant, non-compromising attitude that could lead to the downfall of progressives.