Police and People in a Mental Health Crisis

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Senate Judiciary Committee reported many of the Democrats’ criminal justice reform bills at its meeting last week. I will discuss the most important ones, in some depth, in installments, rather than all at once. This first installment is on the interaction between police and mentally ill folks.

For many years, police officials and sheriffs have warned of the problems posed by mentally ill persons committing crimes, often petty ones, as well as by those having a crisis and acting more violently. This problem has been increasing over the years. (The reasons for this increase are beyond the scope of this post as well as beyond the scope of the knowledge and expertise of the author.) Law-enforcement officials have said publicly, repeatedly and correctly, that their officers have not been trained to deal appropriately with these folks.

One answer has been to provide some basic training to officers on a voluntary basis on how to recognize when people are behaving as they are due to mental health issues, as well as developmental issues such as autism. The training also includes techniques to use in de-escalating situations involving mentally ill people. Finally, these specially-trained law enforcement officers work closely with mental health providers to get assessments and treatment for mentally ill people they encounter.

This approach, called “crisis intervention teams” (CIT), got started in Virginia in the New River Valley region in the mid-2000s and was incorporated into state law in 2009. The Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) have worked together to establish support for these programs, along with training standards.

Coupled with the concept of having law enforcement officers trained to recognize signs of mental health distress and to de-escalate situations is the availability of a site to which law enforcement can take these people for mental health evaluation and help, rather than taking them to jail. These are the CIT Assessment Centers. As of 2015, there were 37 CIT programs and 32 CIT Assessment Centers, providing coverage for nearly 95 percent of the state’s population.

SB 5014 (Edwards, Roanoke) would require that all law enforcement officers receive the basic CIT training, either through their basic minimum training or as part of the recertification requirements. Furthermore, the bill would require every locality to establish, or be a part of, a CIT program. The committee voted unanimously to report the bill. It has been re-referred to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of any fiscal impact.

Marcus-David Peters, killed by Richmond police officer Photo credit: Richmond Free Press

As valuable as the CIT program has been, many activists have contended that localities needed to go further in de-emphasizing the role of police in situations in which a person was having a mental health crisis. In the Richmond area, that movement has crystallized around the case of Marcus-David Peters.

The details of Peters’ tragic story in 2018 are laid out well in this Washington Post story. To summarize, Peters was a young Black high school biology teacher, who, in the span of about 30 minutes, went from being a “normal” person to a naked man crashing into three cars, wrecking his car, and then charging across a major street at a Richmond police officer. The police officer, who happened to be Black, tried his taser, but that seemingly had no effect. He then fired two shots into Peters’ abdomen, as he had been trained to do. Peters later died at the hospital.

To the consternation of many, especially Peters’ family, the Commonwealth’s attorney decided to file no charges after an investigation. Body camera footage was one of the key sources of information for the police and the Commonwealth’s attorney.

The cause of Marcus-David Peters has been at the forefront of the BLM demonstrations in Richmond this summer. Many have demanded the establishment of a system whereby a team of mental health professionals, backup up by police, is alerted whenever a situation involving someone in a crisis arises. (This has been dubbed a “Marcus alert”.)

SB 5038 (McPike, Prince William) would provide for such a system.  At its core would be a “mobile crisis co-response team.” That entity is defined as a “group of mental health service providers working with registered peer recovery specialists and law-enforcement officers as a team.” The function of the team would be “to help stabilize individuals during law enforcement encounters and crisis situations.” They would “respond to crisis situations involving persons whose behaviors are consistent with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or both.”

Activating these teams would be a “mental health first response and alert system” that would route 911 calls indicating a mental health crisis to the mobile crisis co-response team.

The bill would require DCJS and DBHDS to support the development and establishment of these programs and to develop a training program.

Under the provisions of this bill, the establishment of such an alert system and response teams by localities would be optional. Another bill, SB 5084 (McClellan, Richmond) would have mandated their establishment, but there was not sufficient support on the committee for that. HB 5043 (Bourne, Richmond) has the mandate. It has not been heard in committee.

To be maximally effective, the response teams would need to be available around the clock every day. They would also need to be able to respond within a short period of time. The logistics and expense of establishing such teams are daunting, especially in rural areas. There also would be the issue of training 911 operators to know when an incoming call should be deemed a “Marcus alert.”

SB 5038 was probably not needed in this form. The proponents could have chosen to build upon the CIT framework. (The mobile co-response team provisions are almost identical to the current Code language for the CIT programs.) In fact, one person testifying on the bill told the members that some local CIT programs were beginning to expand their operations to incorporate a multidisciplinary approach to answering crisis calls. She expressed her concern that the proposed bill not conflict with the existing CIT programs. The committee members obviously did not want to hear any objections or concerns, however well intended. Hopefully, in this case, DCJS and DBHDS will develop a format that will provide localities sufficient flexibility to incorporate aspects of both programs.

I fully support the concept of this bill. As law-enforcement officials have been saying for years, they are not the most appropriate persons to deal with persons in a mental health crisis. Having mental health professionals on the scene who know how to talk to a person experiencing such an episode and able to de-escalate the situation will, undoubtedly be valuable, and, quite possibly, save lives. However, there are a lot of questions and concerns that could be raised.

Foremost, the system that would be created by the bill will not be the panacea that its proponents seem to think it will be. From a police officer’s perspective, there may not be enough time to summon or wait for a crisis response team. The tragic irony is that Marcus-David Peters probably would not have benefited from the provisions of the bill named after him. The police officer confronting Peters was not responding to a 911 call; he had seen someone driving toward the Interstate on ramp, hitting three other cars and then slamming into a tree.  Upon arriving at the scene, after notifying his dispatcher that he thought the man involved was having a mental health crisis, he saw a naked man exit the car through the window, feet first, get sideswiped by a car, and raise to a sitting position. That man then saw the policeman and charged at him, cursing and threatening to kill him. A taser did not stop the charging man. The officer later told investigators that he was concerned about a hand-to-hand fight for his service revolver. That is when he shot Peters at close range. If a mobile response team had been available, there would not have been time for it to respond.

This bill has become so freighted with emotion and symbolism that no one is willing to broach any concerns or questions. Despite its problems, the bill represents recognition by the legislature that there is a serious problem and provides localities a tool with which they can provide law-enforcement the assistance it has long said that it needed. The bill passed with no objections and was re-referred to the Senate Finance Committee.