Earlier this year Chairman Sharon Bulova invited me to serve on the Fairfax County Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission. My hope was that, as a member of the House Militia Police and Public Safety committee I would be in a position to pursue any legislative changes recommended by the commission.
As it turned out, I was asked to Chair the Mental Health and Crisis Intervention Training Subcommittee, an area I hadn’t had a great deal of previous experience with. I was fortunate to work with a dedicated and extremely expert group of Fairfax County residents on my subcommittee, and I have learned a lot about the mental health services we offer in Fairfax as well those that we can improve upon.
I plan to take this new knowledge and growing expertise and make improving the way Virginia delivers mental health services a priority in Richmond next year. I will also be a champion for encouraging all localities to embrace a “Diversion First” strategy. People living with mental illness need treatment in an appropriate medical setting, not to be warehoused in our jails and prisons.
On August 17, I gave my subcommittee’s report to the full Commission, including twenty-six recommendations for improving mental health services that will better serve our residents while strengthening the relationship between public safety and the community.
A Little Background
Nationwide, police officers have become the first responders when a citizen is in the midst of a psychiatric crisis. This is certainly true in Fairfax County, where the Police Department responds annually to over 5,000 calls for service related to individuals living with a mental illness who need assistance. The Fairfax County Community Services Board also has a mobile crisis unit (MCU), staffed by mental health professionals, to respond to individuals in crisis, but this single unit in a county of about 1.2 million people is insufficient to meet the need and often the police must fill in the gap. When police are first responders, or when they assist the MCU, they are often called upon to help de-escalate situations or provide safety, security, or transport for the individuals involved.
When individuals living with a serious mental illness are arrested in Fairfax County, and are not diverted under existing policies, they become inmates of the Fairfax Adult Detention Center. This situation is a local example of a national phenomenon in which jails and prisons have become the largest psychiatric facilities in our nation. There are nearly fourteen times as many people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons in the US as there are in all state psychiatric hospitals combined. Each year, roughly 2.2 million people experiencing serious mental illnesses requiring immediate treatment are arrested and booked into jails nationwide. Jails are not designed or adequately equipped and staffed to provide the treatment those individuals need.
Mental Health & CIT Subcommittee Recommendations
The Mental Health & CIT Subcommittee strongly and unanimously recommended that Fairfax County make implementation of the Memphis Model of Crisis Intervention Team training a priority. Full implementation will require, at a minimum, the opening of strategically located crisis assessment sites, expanded use of mobile crisis units, and the creation of a mental health court docket by the judiciary.
The subcommittee’s review of best practices shows that the Memphis Model approach can better use tax dollars, reduce police shootings and use of force, reduce officer injuries, help restore public trust in law enforcement, treat those with mental illness in a more appropriate and humane manner, and help ease unnecessary suffering.
Implementing the Memphis CIT/Jail Diversion Model in the optimal manner will require a commitment on the part of the entire community to changing our approach to residents living with mental illness. This includes law enforcement, the Community Services Board, mental health providers, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, public defenders, Fairfax judges, the Board of Supervisors, state legislators, families with loved ones with mental illnesses, consumers, community organizations, hospitals, faith communities and our citizens to work together collaboratively to improve public safety and end tragedies that should and can be prevented.
This will have a positive impact on every police interaction with the public, not just those members who suffer from mental illness. In the City of Memphis, the change in approach has resulted in an attitudinal shift within the police department as it relates to all of their encounters with the community, a shift from military/aggressive or warrior mentality to a community/service or guardian one.
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at DelMSimon@house.virginia.gov