A new county-run “co-responder” program that pairs mental health specialists with police officers to respond to mental health emergencies has been “overwhelmed” with mental health calls since the program launched in December, according to Prince William County officials.
The police department received 272 mental health calls during the month of January, but “co-responder” units were dispatched in only 76 of those calls because of the program’s limited staffing, according to police spokesman 1st Sgt. Jonathan Perok.
Now, Prince William County Executive Chris Martino is proposing to double the size of the program in the county’s 2022 budget to help police deal with the high number of mental health calls. The program is currently only in service Monday through Friday with varying shifts. Programs funded by the new budget generally go into effect at the start of the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The increase in staffing would allow the program to begin responding to calls on the weekend and expand weekday coverage. But it will not be enough to provide 24/7 service, Perok said.
The “co-responder” program is intended to de-escalate situations involving someone with a mental illness or a person experiencing a mental health crisis without the use of force, and to provide those individuals with the appropriate services and resources.
The program currently has three units that consist of one mental health specialist and one police officer. When responding to a call, the mental health clinicians who accompany police officers wear white polo shirts that identify them as “co-responder clinicians.”
Martino said during the board’s Feb. 16 meeting that the program has responded to 108 mental health calls since the program began on Dec. 7. Of those, 68 ended with no hospitalization or arrest and 19 resulted in emergency custody orders in which a person was voluntarily admitted to a hospital.
Police used force in only one call in which the co-responder team was dispatched, Martino said. A co-responder team was on the scene when Prince William County police officers shot killed a 79-year-old man in Dumfries on Dec. 10. The man was armed.
According to an investigation conducted by Prince William County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, the man pointed his gun at police officers and said, “Shoot me,” before he was shot and killed by police. Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth determined the shooting was “justified and reasonable” after the investigation was complete.
The Dumfries shooting was the third Prince William County police shooting in four years, and the second death. In all three shootings, the victims were either experiencing a mental health crisis or substance abuse-related crisis. And in all three, the victims were attempting to coerce police into killing them, sometimes referred to as “suicide by cop.”
The co-responder program has received bipartisan support on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. The board unanimously approved $900,000 in funding to launch the program in last year’s budget. So far, none of the supervisors has expressed any reservations about increasing the size of the program or the price tag attached to it.
Martino told the board that the program is “already being looked at as the model throughout the commonwealth for others to mirror.”
Prince William County is one of only seven Virginia counties, including Henrico, Virginia Beach, Rockingham, Alexandria, Fairfax and the Northwestern Community Services Board in Warren County, that has a mental health crisis response program.
The Virginia General Assembly approved the Marcus-David Peters Act during last fall’s special session that aims to implement a similar program statewide. The new law requires the creation of a statewide crisis response system, dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or MARCUS Alert, that is staffed with mental health clinicians to work alongside local law enforcement when responding to mental health and substance abuse-related emergency calls.
The law is expected to take several years to fully implement. It is named for Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old, African American high school teacher who was shot and killed by a Richmond police officer in 2017 while suffering a severe mental health crisis.