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Fairfax County police cruiser with lights on (via FCPD/Facebook)

Fairfax County plans to make its co-responder model pairing police with mental health crisis specialists for certain 911 calls permanent.

The county began developing the program last year with a micropilot that was extended with $4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The proposed fiscal year 2023 budget includes more than $2.1 million to retain 17 behavioral health specialists and nine police positions approved in January as part of the fiscal year 2022 mid-year review.

“On average, there’s around 25 mental health type of calls that come into the 911 center every day, and we know a percentage of those 25 calls really don’t need primary police response,” Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board executive director Daryl Washington told FFXnow. “This co-responder model is making sure that you’re sending the right resource to the individuals in the community.”

The county reported last year that the program helped divert 40% of calls from ending in arrest or hospitalization.

While many calls do require medical or police services, ones involving a mental health crisis don’t necessarily need a police officer responding, Washington said.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will hold public hearings on the proposed budget April 12-14 and is slated to vote on it in May. The county’s fiscal year begins on July 1 and ends on June 30 of the following calendar year.

Photo via FCPD/Facebook

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Less than a third of Fairfax County sheriff’s deputies and less than half of Fairfax County Police Department officers have undergone Crisis Intervention Team training, which seeks to help first responders more safely and effectively help people with mental health issues.

Changing how law enforcement handles situations involving mental health issues is the goal of a program that Fairfax County resumed testing earlier this week, pairing CIT-trained officers with mental health specialists to respond to non-criminal 911 calls.

The pilot program is the county’s first step toward fulfilling a state requirement that it have mental health professionals involved in behavioral health crisis responses by July 2023, but it also stems from the ongoing Diversion First initiative aimed at preventing unnecessary arrests and hospitalizations.

FCPD says 46% of its approximately 1,500 officers are currently CIT-trained.

“It is important to acknowledge the county only adopted the current model of CIT in 2016 and is committed to the continual training of department personnel in crisis intervention training,” police said in a statement.

The Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office says 132 of its 439 deputies have received CIT training.

Neighboring counties report more robust adoption rates.

The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office tells FFXnow that every deputy serving patrol, corrections, or courthouse duties takes the training within their first two years on the force. Since 2016, Arlington County has required that all new officers take the 40-hour course within six months of completing field training.

Differences in training can contribute to discrepancies in how individual officers treat people with mental health or substance use issues. That inconsistency is one challenge facing Diversion First, Fairfax County Chief Public Defender Dawn Butorac told FFXnow in September.

During a public safety committee meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 28), Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said the county “is hoping to get many more officers in” CIT training, calling that a baseline qualification for selecting personnel for the co-responder pilot.

Fairfax County adopted the “Memphis Model” of CIT training in 2016 in response to the Ad Hoc Police Practices Commission that the Board of Supervisors formed in 2015 after facing public criticism and a lawsuit over how the county handled a police officer shooting and killing Springfield resident John Geer in 2013.

In a final report released on Oct. 8, 2015, the commission recommended that the FCPD create specially trained crisis intervention teams, provide base-level training for all officers, require CIT training for certain command positions, including in the patrol division, and offer incentives like flexible shift hours to encourage suitable officers to join a CIT.

According to a progress report on the commission’s 202 recommendations, those proposals have all been implemented, but the FCPD did not respond by publication time when asked for details on the incentives it has for officers to get the CIT training.

The FCPD’s CIT-related administrative records and protocols consist of slideshows used for the training and a general order about emotionally disturbed persons, according to a county administrator.

Other kinds of mental health training for county law enforcement include a Mental Health First Aid Day for the sheriff’s office. In addition, the police department’s general order on the use of force states that officers should take into consideration people’s “medical issues, mental health issues, disabilities, or language and/or cultural differences.”

Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services have issued guidance for CIT programs that in fact discourages agencies from giving the training to all patrol personnel “except as necessary to achieve 24/7 coverage.”

“Experience suggests that a successful CIT program will, at a minimum, have 20-25% of the agency’s patrol division, which will likely result in 24/7 CIT officer coverage,” the state guidance says. “The ultimate goal is to have an adequate number of patrol officers trained in order to ensure that CIT-trained officers are available at all times.”

Per the state guidance:

Just as officers for other specialty areas in law enforcement are not equally suited to every job, so it is with CIT officers. CIT is a training that demands officers have certain skills and experience in order to be effective. For example, because CIT asks officers to take a very different approach in dealing with certain situations, it is beneficial to train officers who are extremely comfortable with their basic policing skills and procedures and have been on the road for a significant period of time. Additionally, CIT training is NOT effective as a means of ‘fixing’ an officer who may not have a well developed set of interpersonal skills.

The Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office has 24/7 CIT coverage on every squad and shift, whether deputies are assigned to the Adult Detention Center, courthouse, or civil enforcement, spokesperson Andi Ceisler said.

She noted that all deputies assigned to the Merrifield Crisis Response Center have CIT training.

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(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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A nurse treats an inmate in an opioid prevention program (via Fairfax County)

Fairfax County has provided drug or mental health treatment services to more than 2,100 people who would have otherwise wound up in jail since launching a diversion initiative five years ago, a recent report on the program says.

Released in August, the 2020 annual Diversion First report suggests the county’s efforts to emphasize support services over incarceration for people with mental health and substance use challenges are starting to pay off.

According to the report, Fairfax County’s jail population saw a 28% decrease from 2015 to 2020 in the number of people with behavioral health issues and misdemeanor charges, while the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s Merrifield Crisis Response Center received 37% more cases per year between 2016 and 2020.

Since Diversion First launched on Jan. 1, 2016, total calls for service involving mental illness with police response have risen every year, from 3,566 calls in 2016 to 9,989 in 2020. It wasn’t immediately clear whether that means the number of cases has increased or they are receiving more attention.

“Over the past several years, there has been increased attention on people with mental illness, co-occurring substance use disorders and/or developmental disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system for low-level offenses,” Diversion First Director Lisa Potter said in a statement. “In addition, training and screening has increased, allowing for greater opportunities for identification, diversion, and referral and engagement in services.”

Fairfax County created the initiative in the wake of Natasha McKenna’s death at the Adult Detention Center in February 2015. Multiple sheriff’s deputies at the jail hit and used a Taser on McKenna, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, when attempting to transfer her to another facility.

While prosecutors declined to press charges in McKenna’s death, the county admitted that its jail had “become a warehouse for people with mental illness.”

“Diversion First offers alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness, co-occurring substance use disorders and/or developmental disabilities, who come into contact with the criminal justice system for low-level offenses,” the initiative’s website says.

Diversion First has expanded from its initial focus on transferring individuals from police custody to the Merrifield Center, which provides behavioral health and substance abuse services, to also encompass housing and judicial components.

Introduced in 2017, the housing aspects of the initiative include money to assist with initial rents and deposits for Oxford House group recovery homes as well as a partnership with the nonprofit New Hope Housing to provide permanent housing.

“The [New Hope Housing] program has been successful in keeping 30 individuals housed while helping to decrease their rate of psychiatric hospitalization and time spent in jail. This program costs considerably less than what it does to house an individual in jail — more than 50% less,” the 2020 report says, adding that 39 people have been served with this outreach throughout the program’s history.

The county has also added specialty dockets to its court system for veterans, mental health, and a drug court.

Fairfax County Chief Public Defender Dawn Butorac says all three dockets have been going well, as the courts are looking to expand the number of accepted individuals. But she notes there’s room for improvement. Read More

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