Marcus Alerts in Virginia and Risks to Unarmed Responders

by James C. Sherlock

The Marcus Alert is named after Marcus-David Peters, a teacher killed by Richmond police in 2018 amid a mental health crisis.

The Marcus Alert system requires coordination between 911 and regional crisis call centers and establishes a specialized behavioral health response from a combination of behavioral health professionals and law enforcement when responding to a behavioral health situation.

It sounds right, but is dangerous to unarmed responders. We will have to work through that to see if the program is sustainable over time. And where.

Richmond. A Virginia law passed in a 2020 Special Session funded a Marcus Alert System as a prototype in five localities across the state. The City of Richmond is one of those. It launched its program on December 1, 2021.

The Marcus Alert plan in Richmond is being implemented as a collaboration among:

Mobile co-responder teams including law enforcement are part of the program.

It sets up a decision for call center operators to make under pressure. Send cops or send a specialized mobile behavioral response team?

This program is new, funded by the state at $600,000 per locality, and supposed to be fully operational in the five first adopter localities by July 1 of this year. So there is no data to judge its effectiveness or the tradeoffs between citizen and responder safety in such a change.

Virginia Beach, however, has had a mobile co-responder team in place since 2018. I am unable to find any data on its utilization and experiences since then. I plan to enquire and will report in a future article.

It is obvious that there will be issues of unarmed responder safety. Police are often assaulted in such situations. What will happen when the first unarmed response team member is assaulted? When the first unarmed responder death occurs?

We will find out.

There is another problem in Richmond. It is not only short of cops.

The Richmond Behavioral Health Authority as of this morning is advertising 119 job openings in an authorized end strength of about 750. One in six.

Twenty-one of those vacancies are nurses. Four open positions are in crisis services, including a Region 4 Marcus Alert Coordinator. Twenty one positions are clinicians, including emergency services clinicians.

Bottom line. Groups like the National Alliance for Mental Illness and social justice organizations lobbied hard for the Marcus Alert program.

They cast grossly unfair and unnecessary aspersions at the police in the process, which most, including me, find objectionable. Those tactics made the program politically charged when it did not need to be. It could have stood on its own potential merits, as it did in Virginia Beach.

It is a case of “be careful what you ask for.” Lots of hills to climb. Like all such things, success will be dependent upon its competent administration and well-trained responder teams. It will work in some places and fail in others.

The danger to mental health crisis employees is real, even in their own facilities. Field responses are a different ballgame. Even when the mental health personnel are available, willing and able to do it.

But Godspeed.  I really hope it works.

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22 responses to “Marcus Alerts in Virginia and Risks to Unarmed Responders”

  1. James Kiser Avatar
    James Kiser

    As a first responder who for 31 year dealt with nut jobs and addicts it is a no win situation. I have successfully talked a few into going peacefully while the vast majority ended up in serious violence with the responders getting the worse of it. You people out there in your safe little 9-5 jobs have got to quit watching scripted stupid tv shows and realize that is not the way it works out.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Don’t agree much with Kiser but I do here. It’s a nice “theory” but the reality is when 911 is called – you simply don’t know the level of danger and even police who are trained and ready get injured and killed by folks with “mental” issues.

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        It’s not a theory. It is the law in Virginia. Which is why I wrote about it. And the reason I wished the responders Godspeed.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          what is the law? I doubt seriously the law saw that every police car has to have a mental health person on board.

          More likely the law “allows” something rather than mandates.

          It’s a bad idea in general. Let the police respond then call in mental health when the situation calls for it.

          To staff up all police to have mental health on-board or even in police stations is going to be gawd-awful costly and risks as hell to all concerned both mental health staff and LEO.

          We don’t provide the mental health infrastructure and services BEFORE-hand which if we did would already be dealing with some folks BEFORE it becomes a police issue.

          The current approach is cynical and doomed to fail. It’s “feel-good” that risks responders lives IMO.

        2. Anonymous Avatar

          A law which has not started and should have been in “December 2021”

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Prince William County has launched a similar program. I wonder if they allow ride along these days. It would be useful to see this up close from a citizen’s perspective.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      They have. The program is now available in 5 localities, one within each region of the State.

      Western VA : Madison County, Fauquier County , Warrenton and Culpeper City (Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services)

      Northern VA : Prince William County (Prince William County Community Services)

      Southwest VA: City of Bristol and Washington County including the Towns of Abingdon, Damascus, and Glade Spring (Highlands CSB)

      Central VA : City of Richmond (Richmond Behavioral Health Authority)

      Southeast VA: City of Virginia Beach (Virginia Beach Human Services )

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m not a believer in this. When a incident occurs and 911 called, they really don’t know with any precision what the circumstances are -on the ground.

    Typically, the fastest, most efficient response is to roll a law enforcement unit and from there assess what is going on.

    Even then, there is danger even to armed police sometimes.

    We talk the talk about mental illness but we’re not really serious about it. If we were, we’d, at least, have enough mental health facilities and we can’t even seem to get that right.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      But, but, only California has rolling blackouts…

      Be prepared for onslaught of windy NG sniffers…

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      See the video that I have posted twice on this article. Compare what the dispatcher is telling the cops to what the cops SHOULD be seeing for themselves.

  4. Lefty665 Avatar

    Cops training and profession is enforcing the law. Mental health workers training and profession is in dealing with people with mental health issues. Teaming the two up when dealing with people with mental health issues has great potential. They can tag team as needed and often get better outcomes for all.

    Is it hazardous duty? Yes. That is no different than the hazards experienced by both already. Richmond has had crisis intervention teams for at least 50 years. Teaming them with cops might actually provide them more protection than they have had.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      So, one is trained to handle the other?

      1. Lefty665 Avatar

        Mental health workers need to learn how to select the best donuts too.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Still, it would be best to select only white mental health workers first… see video.

          1. Lefty665 Avatar

            Long ago when chasing mental health patients who ran from the facility we would shake the big ring of keys and tell bystanders we were staff. That might not work so well today.

          2. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Yeah, maybe a bell and blow a whistle! But then bank robbers will catch on…

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    This could be very dangerous for the health worker… but maybe if they know him, it will be better.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I share your concerns. However, the model program that you linked to calls for law-enforcement to be part of the response. The idea is for mental health professionals to take the lead in dealing with someone who seems to be mentally disturbed, with law enforcement there as backup in case things go wrong. But, you are correct that the unarmed mental health responder is at immediate risk. The perfect example is Marcus Peters. When he came charging out of that car, I doubt that he would have responded positively to a mental health responder.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      We are in total agreement. I wrote in the article that they are mixed teams. One less cop. One more civilian. Doesn’t mean it is not a good idea, but it is more dangerous for the responders than two cops.

      1. MentalHealthProvider Avatar

        James, did you actually speak with someone assigned to the Marcus Alert team (Community
        Response Team)?

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