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A Fairfax County Fire and Rescue worker accepts change for the department’s annual “Fill the Boot” campaign (via FCFRD)

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors directed county staff yesterday (Tuesday) to study potential safety risks when people ask for help on street medians, following concerns from the public.

A memo will be delivered to the board by July 31 from a group of county staff, including representatives from the Fairfax County Police Department, the county’s transportation department, the Office of the County Attorney, and the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.

Staff will include data-driven analyses about “whether or not there is a specific safety risk related to or stemming from panhandling” and recommend solutions if necessary, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said during a board meeting yesterday.

In a newsletter, McKay reiterated the county’s advice against donating to individual recipients, instead suggesting people give money to nonprofits that provide support services for those individuals.

During the board meeting, McKay added that passersby could also share their generosity in other ways to help people.

“We know that many of the people who are panhandling are not homeless individuals but rather are preying on the extraordinary generosity of our residents in Fairfax County,” McKay said.

He further recommended that motorists give people a piece of paper that lists available resources, such as social service centers.

“Small gifts of cash do not solve the issue of panhandling, but further exacerbate the matter,” McKay said in the newsletter.

McKay acknowledged that courts have ruled in favor of people asking for money on public property due to the First Amendment and that free speech must be protected. But he says he’s increasingly concerned about safety for all.

The move led to quarreling between McKay and Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, who said he’s been trying to get the board to address the issue for years.

In a newsletter, Herrity said county staff previously collected data and identified over 40 panhandling spots “where there is a public safety issue.”

Led by Herrity and then-Braddock District Supervisor John Cook, the county board directed staff to draft an ordinance disincentivizing panhandling in 2019. Later that year, the board considered putting up anti-panhandling signs, but that effort never came to fruition.

“For us to move forward so far only to start back at square one is a disservice to our residents and to every motorist and panhandler whose life is in danger in our medians each day we delay,” Herrity said in a statement. “We live in an increasingly urban suburb with very busy intersections where it isn’t safe for anyone to be interacting with motorists.”

Despite that statement, Herrity said he is fine with public safety groups using medians and intersections to conduct donations, as in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s “Fill the Boot” campaigns, which support the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Officials noted that private property owners, such as malls, can restrict people from asking for donations.

Photo via Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department

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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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