Fairfax County enlists mental health crisis specialists to assist police with some 911 calls

(Updated at 12:05 p.m. on 9/30/2021) Fairfax County will resume an effort today (Wednesday) to avoid arresting people in mental health crises by using behavioral health experts in the hopes of eventually putting the service into effect 24/7.

Pairing a crisis intervention specialist with specially trained police officers, the “co-responder” teams address 911 calls related to behavioral health issues for the resumed service, a micropilot program that’s expected to be in place three days a week.

“Over time, we’re going to have a better sense of handling these types of calls, and we might get to a place where we don’t have to have both behavioral health and police at the same time,” said Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee.

The county initially tested the approach for over a month this past March with teams working in eight-hour shifts Wednesdays through Fridays, ultimately diverting 40% of incidents from potential arrest or hospitalization.

One such case involved a family situation between siblings, where an autistic man assaulted his adult sister, said Abbey May, emergency and crisis services director for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (CSB), which provides multiple mobile emergency response services, among other health supports.

“She had locked herself in the bathroom and reported her brother had slipped a knife under the door to intimidate her,” May said.

A co-responder team gathered critical information from talking to the woman, asking what calms her brother down and what makes him upset. The responders explained that they were there to help.

“They were able to successfully de-escalate the situation without the use of force, incarceration, or hospitalization,” May told the Board of Supervisors yesterday (Tuesday) at its public safety committee meeting.

To support the resumed micropilot program, the CSB is reallocating one of its two Mobile Crisis Units. The pairings with police will continue on a limited basis, and it’s unclear how long the initiative will last this time, but it could serve as a bridge to an expanded service, said Lisa Potter, director of the county’s Diversion First program.

The county’s effort to reform how it responds to certain 911 calls comes after Virginia adopted a law last year creating a Marcus Alert system.

Named after high school biology teacher Marcus-David Peters, who was killed by a police officer while experiencing a mental health crisis in 2018, the statewide system is designed to ensure behavioral health experts are involved in emergency responses related to mental health and substance use issues.

According to Lauren Cunningham, communications director for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the law requires every local CSB to establish either a mobile crisis team or a community care team by July 1, 2026, though as the state’s most populous locality, Fairfax County must have its program set up by July 1, 2023.

As defined by the bill, a mobile crisis team can consist of one or more qualified or licensed mental health professionals, including peer recovery specialists and family support partner, but it explicitly does not involve law enforcement, Cunningham says.

Community care teams, on the other hand, are composed of mental health service providers and can include law enforcement officers. A co-responder model like the one Fairfax County is developing would fall under this approach.

Fairfax County could use its American Rescue Plan Act money to fund an expansion of the micropilot. County leaders have identified a multi-pronged approach that includes having an officer and crisis intervention specialist travel and respond together in teams that would each cover two police districts.

The $4 million ARPA-funded proposal would create four co-responder teams in the field and cover 26 positions — which would include 10 crisis intervention specialists, eight police officers, and other staff — as well as vehicles and other equipment.

While other mental health efforts help divert unnecessary arrests and jailing, the co-responder approach provides real-time 911 responses, May said. Diversion First leaders have pressed to eventually make the effort available around the clock.

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