Response Time: Whatever happened to that mental health crisis task force the City was going to form?
"There was no follow up from the City on the recommendation to form an official task force," Anderson told The DTM.
In a September 7, 2020 email to his fellow City Councilors, after a summer of protests following the murder of George Floyd, then Councilor Lloyd Snook took issue with the fact that the topic of handling mental health-related police calls differently was not on the Council's agenda.
"Myra Anderson has sent us another email on the topic," Snook wrote. "We have not made any response that I know of. If you look at issues that people nationwide have been talking and marching about, this is perhaps right at the top. Ms. Anderson's last email speaks of a specific proposal for a specific kind of group. I don't know exactly what she is proposing, and I am not endorsing it, but we need to do SOMETHING."
Later, during a September 21, 2020 City Council meeting, Snook announced that he and Councilor Sena Magill wanted to form a "mental health crisis response task force" with Anderson, a mental health care advocate, serving as a representative.
“We hope to have more details on that in a couple of weeks, but I just wanted to let folks know that that is an initiative that we’re going to start,” Snook said in the council meeting. “I’ve heard a number of people talking about that over the last few months in Charlottesville and elsewhere, and we’re going to be moving forward on that.”
Anderson told Charlottesville Tomorrow she was "pleased that her idea for a task force is coming to fruition" and called it a “first step” to addressing mental health crises "without necessarily involving law enforcement." She hoped that representatives of organizations and agencies, like Region Ten, would be involved in the task force, but also "people who have lived experiences of mental health conditions that can speak to what types of crisis response may work best."
“I’ve been exchanging a lot of emails and making public comments because I think it’s important,” Anderson said.
In December that year, former Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law the Marcus-David Peters Act, named for Marcus-David Peters, a Black man who was killed by Richmond police in 2018 while having a mental health crisis. The law was a framework for a system that would create specialized responses, involving not just police but social services agencies as well, to crises involving those with mental health, substance use or developmental disability issues. Under the new law, localities have until July 2026 to implement a Marcus Alert system.
A year later, the City finally held its first community discussion on the issue, and then-Police Chief RaShall Brackney emphasized just how important it was to get something done. "Failure to address this societal issue compounds the suffering of our most vulnerable communities, and requires police professionals to provide a service they are ill-prepared or trained to perform," she told The DTM. "It is imperative that legislators, service providers and localities work in concert with police departments to ensure those in need of support, receive the treatment they rightly deserve."
Indeed, as it stands now, the police response to individuals in a mental health crisis, which is mandated by state law, involves an intervention that is more like an arrest than an offer to help. While roughly 80-85% of Charlottesville police officers and 911 Operators are CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) trained, which allows them to have some understanding of how to handle individuals in such a crisis, the procedures they have to follow are largely punitive if it's determined the person needs treatment. First, the individual has the option to voluntarily admit themselves to the hospital for an evaluation, but if they refuse or are incapable of making such a decision the police can obtain an Emergency Custody Order (ECO), which is basically like a temporary arrest which allows the police to transport the individual to the hospital for evaluation against their will if necessary. This, of course, is the part of the process where things can go wrong if the situation isn't handled well. Once at the hospital the officer is required to wait for hospital staff to determine if a Temporary Detention Order (TDO) sending them to a state treatment facility is issued, at which point the officer is required to transport the individual to the facility; and again, against their will if necessary. Between 2018 and 2020, Charlottesville Police have responded to approximately 982 of these Assist Citizen (TDO/ECO) calls.
"Our goal is to have some suggestions for City Council that are influenced by our local professionals as well as community members who have lived experience or familial experience," Magill told The DTM after the community discussion. "This is a complex and many-layered problem that has been exacerbated with decreased funding to community service boards and changes to Medicaid that have caused additional problems for service providers." McGill also pointed out that decreased beds in hospitals for people experiencing a mental health crisis have created problems, requiring police to stay longer with people while a bed is found, and even sometimes having to transport individuals across the state."
However, over a year and half after Council first proposed addressing this issue, Anderson says there has been no progress in forming the proposed task force.
"There was no follow up from the City on the recommendation to form an official task force," Anderson told The DTM, "…no follow up whatsoever on that recommendation and that is what we take serious issue with above all else."
Indeed, Anderson and other advocates were on the Downtown Mall recently again demanding that the City form a task force to address mental health needs, including changes to the way police respond to mental health crises as outlined in the Marcus Alert system.
Sonny Saxton, executive director of the Charlottesville-UVa-Albemarle County Emergency Communications Center, told Council previously that implementing the Marcus Alerts system was "a large undertaking without state support" and that "it could take a while before" the city receives that support.
“There’s no lack of people who are intentional about this work. The staffing restraints are there. Our emergency departments may not be able to handle the load. These are tall orders,” Saxton said.
While Anderson understands that implementing the Marcus Alert system is a large undertaking, she doesn't understand why the City isn't doing more to prepare for it.
“They could be getting more input from the community, having focus groups all over the community among people who have experienced mental health issues and getting information from them,” Anderson told the Daily Progress. “That doesn’t take five or six years or state mandates. They can be engaging with the community right now.”
As recently reported, Albemarle County has funded a "mental health response team," which is a "partnership with the Department of Social Services and the police department to respond to a mental health crisis in a way that’s much more caring and is much more suited for the situation,” Albemarle County Fire Rescue Chief Dan Eggleston told NBC29.
“In the past, those calls would get sent to the police department and they did not have a lot of options at the time so we decided to broaden the team with a group of clinicians,” Eggleston said.
The new teams dispatched to handle such calls, said Eggleston, will include a social worker, police officer, and a paramedic.
“Each person is broken down into groups and knows their role,” Eggleston told NBC29. “It’s like a sporting event: Everyone has their role when the ball snaps, everyone is from a different team, but everyone has a role to bring that situation under control.”
As for Charlottesville, Councilors Snook and Magill couldn't provide much when asked for an update on the City's efforts, other than to say they had met "roughly bi-weekly through the first 8 months of 2021" and that they're watching what Albemarle County is doing "in hopes that we can copy and tweak things to fit the Charlottesville city community."
"The issue is a very complex one that also requires different agencies to work within sometimes conflicting guidelines," Magill added.
Snook also mentioned that "the local police departments and emergency call centers are planning for non-police responses to mental health crises," but said Region Ten would have more information on that. The DTM reached out to Region Ten executive director Lisa Beitz and asked for an update on any progress that has been made planning for a new mental health crisis response system, but that request was passed on without comment to Region Ten's Community Relations Coordinator, who did not respond to a request for comment before this story was posted.