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Fairfax County to expand mental health services, including more clinicians on police calls, this fall

A trained clinician and police officer, two halves of a Fairfax County co-responder team, help an individual in need (via Fairfax County)

Fairfax County will bolster its capabilities to respond to and resolve emergency calls related to mental health this fall.

The Fairfax County Police Department and the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board presented plans to roll out a fourth co-responder team and a telehealth pilot program at a Board of Supervisors safety and security committee meeting on Tuesday (Aug. 1).

Active since its pilot in March 2021 and made permanent in 2022, the co-responder program pairs a Crisis Intervention Team-trained law enforcement officer with a CSB crisis intervention specialist to respond to behavioral health calls. The duo rides together in the same patrol cruiser and either self-dispatch proactively to behavioral health calls or are dispatched by emergency services, FCPD Lieutenant Joanna Culkin explained during the meeting.

Co-responder teams aim to de-escalate situations involving an individual with a mental health crisis without use of force, incarceration or hospitalization to decrease instances of individuals being harmed by law enforcement.

Currently, three co-responder teams operate in the county, according to CSB Division Director of Emergency and Crisis Care Services Laura Maddock.

Two of the teams are active from noon to midnight seven days a week. The third team currently works from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. three days a week but will expand its coverage to match the other two teams on Aug. 15.

The fourth co-responder team that Maddock expects to join in late September or early October will follow a similar trajectory, starting with three-day coverage before transitioning to operating for a full week.

The continuing expansion of these mental health crisis services comes after the program showed measurable success in a June 30 data pull, Culkin says. She noted that the co-responder program has successfully increased timely on-scene assessment, with the presence of a clinician often de-escalating situations.

“Sometimes just having the clinician show up paired with our law enforcement counterpart puts people at ease and lets them know that, really, behavioral health is the main focus of our response,” Culkin said.

Culkin cited increased linkages to behavioral health services and higher levels of care, decreased rates of incarceration and arrest, and decreased visits to emergency services as benefits of the program. She said the program helps address “the [psychiatric] bed capacity issue across the state of Virginia” by resolving many cases in the field so fewer individuals need further care.

Of the 1,300 calls that got a co-responder response since the program began, 50% were resolved in the field, 30% were diverted from arrest or hospitalization, 26% resulted in higher level of care and 17% resulted in an Emergency Custody Order and/or Temporary Detention Order, Culkin said.

“That 17% is a really good number for us,” Culkin said. “When we’re looking at if a regular patrol officer had responded…without the ability to do those timely on scene assessments or come up with a safety or care plan, we’re looking at a significantly higher number of ECOs and TDOS.”

To further illustrate the co-responder program’s impact, Culkin recounted an instance where a clinician successfully worked with officers to “talk down” a “distraught subject” who was standing atop a ledge on a parking garage in Dunn Loring and “get him the help he needed.”

On another occasion, a co-responder team responded to a behavioral health call from a man “in emotional distress who indicated that nobody had ever celebrated his birthday.” After helping the man, the pair came back the next day with a birthday cake and enjoyed a belated celebration with him.

“These are good examples of both of the ways the co-responder program has had a positive impact with our community,” Culkin said.

The FCPD and CSB will additionally pilot a new telehealth program following the same fall timeline as the fourth co-responder team. Two police stations in Reston and McLean will receive iPads that officers can use to remotely contact a trained clinician at the Merrifield Crisis Response Center around the clock to fill gaps in coverage, since the co-responder teams don’t operate 24/7.

Maddock hinted that the county is working on implementing a follow-up team, which would consist of a peer and clinician going out to subjects of co-responder cases for check ins and referrals.

FCPD is also striving to increase the number of police officers who have undergone CIT training from 40% to 42% by the end of the year, Culkin said. The number has been slowly increasing over the last couple of years after less than a third of officers had received CIT training in 2021.