Virginia lawmakers and health care providers are stepping up to relieve law enforcement from the heavy burden of mental health calls.
Police say that responding to a mental health crisis can be a painstakingly long process that takes law enforcement officers out of commission, rendering them unable to return to their shift and respond to other crimes.
“It is difficult when you want to be out there taking calls and helping out, and you’re sitting at the hospital instead,” said Campbell County Sheriff’s Sergeant Jenna Collins.
When officers respond to mental health calls, they must determine if the individual going through a crisis is suicidal or homicidal.
If so, the officer issues an emergency custody order (ECO) that allows the officer to take custody of the individual. They then transport the person to the nearest hospital.
In central Virginia, officers take such individuals to the Lynchburg General Hospital, where hospital staff or staff from Horizon Behavioral Health — a mental healthcare provider — determine if a temporary detention order (TDO) is necessary, which temporarily places the individual under care of a mental health facility.
However, the law currently states that officers must remain with the patient throughout the whole process, which can take from hours to even days at a time, thus detaining officers from their regular duties.
“When everybody’s tied up on mental health calls — not that those aren’t important — it makes it difficult for us to do what we want to do for our citizens,” Collins said.
The Campbell County Sheriff’s Office said that over the past few years, mental health calls have increased — mostly as a result of drug abuse and addiction. But it’s not just their department — other departments, including the Lynchburg Police Department and the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office, have had the same problem.
Last year, deputies spent nearly 1,600 hours responding to mental health calls. Such a burden can slow response times and reduce officer capacity, leading to significant public safety issues. It also has a financial impact.
The sheriff’s office said that in responding to two mental health calls last August, deputies were forced to stay with the patient for six days, or 264 hours — 75 of which were overtime. The two cases cost the county over $2,500.
Campbell County Sheriff Whit Clark said he is appealing to lawmakers for help to alleviate the situation.
“Well, making sure — first and foremost — we are always going to respond to people in crisis,” Clark said. “In my opinion, they need to be turned over to the professional who can give them that help and my deputies and law enforcement can back away.”
In response, Republican State Senator Steve Newman recently devised a bill, SB 953, to create alternative methods of transport for a person issued a TDO.
Under the bill, auxiliary officers given three weeks of training for mental health calls would execute the ECO instead of officers or deputies.
“That hopefully will be a Band-Aid fix,” Newman said.
A longer term solution is also in the works. One proposal plans to turn the Central Virginia Training Center into a triage center — also called a crisis response center — by this summer. Newman hopes the $2 million-plus project will be included in the state budget.
According to Newman, Horizon or another private mental health agency would staff the center. Horizon recently submitted a proposal to the state for funding for the center.
The proposal states that the center is intended to “provide relief to local and state hospitals as well as law enforcement by offering alternative access to crisis services.”
The Office of Governor Glenn Youngkin issued a statement from the Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Little that read:
“The Administration is working with legislators in both parties and with key stakeholders to provide some relief to the behavioral health crisis, particularly providing alternatives to relying on law enforcement for extended custody of patients when there is a delay admitting them to a hospital. We are hopeful we can address this crisis with legislation and budget action this session and continue to work with law enforcement, health care providers and other stakeholders on longer term solutions.”