The police department is not the only county department with staffing reportedly in steep decline.
The number of emergency behavioral health clinicians in the Department of Human Services is also in free fall, as 13 members of the 26-person staff have departed in the last year, County Manager Mark Schwartz told the County Board during its Tuesday afternoon meeting. Existing staff cannot cover all the shifts and contractors are being used to fill in the gaps.
County officials say these clinical jobs are complex and demanding, have higher expectations and require significant training. In response, folks are leaving for jobs with better benefits and working conditions.
But they also pin this trend on a decision the Commonwealth made this summer to close more than half of its state-run mental hospitals to new admissions amid its own workforce crisis. Without these beds, people in crisis are “warehoused” at Virginia Hospital Center, and in some cases sedated and handcuffed to gurneys, Schwartz said, grimacing.
“We cannot afford not to take action,” said Director of Human Services Anita Friedman. “I have always viewed most of our clinicians, but especially our emergency clinicians, as non-uniformed public safety. They don’t wear badge, or a gun, but they are in as much danger, oftentimes, as public safety without really the same level of benefits. Without a strong emergency services staff, competent and equipped to deal with people, you’ll see an increase in suicide, homicide and all kinds of community problems.”
The short staffing hurts the Arlington County Police Department, as some officers end up spending most of their shifts in the hospital emergency room with these patients, reducing the officers available to respond to calls.
“I know I’m speaking in somewhat dire tones,” Schwartz said. “I feel like the situation is really critical.”
He asked the County Board to consider setting aside $3 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding — intended for Covid-related needs — for bonuses. Schwartz said he wanted to gauge the Board’s support before bringing forward a fully-baked plan.
“We’re fully with you on moving forward with this,” Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said. “Thank you for bringing this forward. While we want to understand the fiscal details, let’s move forward and address this. There’s a through-line between our police department and our mental health services, and with respect to staffing, that’s what we have to move quickly and the Board is ready to do that with you.”
This situation is coming to a head amid calls from the community and the County Board to transition police officers away from mental health calls. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota last year, Arlington County convened a Police Practices Group, which drafted about 100 ways to reform ACPD, including detangling officers from intervening in these cases.
The approved Fiscal Year 2022 budget even included funding for an enhanced mental health crisis response program.
But now, Police Chief Andy Penn says the police are more entangled with mental health calls than ever.
“We certainly supported where the police department should do less with mental health, but I think we’re doing more than we have in some time,” he said. “The need is to help people get the care and treatment they need, but it is a big, broad conversation that goes beyond the police department.”
In a statement provided to County Board members prior to the meeting, the Arlington Coalition of Police said officers overwhelmingly share the community’s desire to limit the interactions police have with those in mental crisis.
“But as is commonly the case, when the community has a problem few others want to address, it turns to the police,” the statement said.
Forty-six officers this calendar year have announced intent to leave, have left or have retired, with 26 of those leaving since June. That’s more than the number of departures in 2019 and 2020 combined, Schwartz told the Board.
Meanwhile, 99 have indicated they are thinking of leaving in next 12 months, the coalition said.
Members of the department previously told ARLnow that officers are leaving for better-paying, private sector jobs, including Amazon’s security team. At least one has also reportedly left for the fire department.
“Officers know some members of the public will have little sympathy for the fact that after promising police officers a 5.5% annual merit increase in pay in 2019, county leaders stopped following through on that after the first year,” the coalition said. “They know some people will not care that officers struggle to afford to live in Arlington despite the abundance of overtime opportunities that exist due to depleted staffing levels.”
By November, the county anticipates the functional strength of ACPD will be about 280 officers. In response, overtime work has doubled. From March 1 to Sept. 2 of this year, officers worked 3,330 hours of overtime, compared to 1,680 hours during the same period last year.
“Fewer officers means less time and resources for investigations of every sort,” the coalition said. “It means the officers that remain will be asked to work more hours with less help. It means that when officers encounter armed subjects that just committed violent offenses, they will be operating under more cumulative stress and deeper cumulative exhaustion.”
Meanwhile, in the client services bureau of DHS, which includes emergency clinicians, 13 of 41 positions are vacant, with two employees about to go on maternity leave.
Friedman and Penn both stressed a need for clearer expectations about the scope of work for their staff.
“We cannot do everything at the same time,” Friedman said. “We are the same people doing eviction prevention, coronavirus, mental health — so many community problems. [Clinicians] can go to other places, and they’re going, because they’re getting better salaries and their workload is sometimes less than what we’re requiring.”
As for other long-term changes, Community Services Board Executive Director and DHS Deputy Director Deborah Warren said municipalities should lobby the state for fewer regulations and standards around licensing and Medicaid. She said these standards mean clinicians have an “unbelievable” amount of paperwork.
Additionally, she said DHS needs a training academy approach and some lower-level positions to give people a career ladder.
Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol said the $3 million in the short term is critical, but the county needs long-term solutions.
“For a while, we’ve been able in Arlington to outrun national dynamics of not enough people going into these fields,” she said. “With the pandemic, and the shortages of people willing to enter or stay for the very good reasons you described, there’s no outrunning to be done. This has come for all of us.”
Good Friday evening, Arlington. Today we published articles that were read a total of 17124 times… so far. 📈 Top stories The following are the most-read articles for today —…
A march against drugs drew a large crowd of parents and community members to Wakefield High School, where a student died this week.
Arlington County police responded to an unusual incident on Route 50 this afternoon. It happened around 1 p.m. at the intersection with Park Drive, near the Arlington Forest Shopping Center…
Building a new home should be a rewarding and memorable experience. That’s why a custom-built home requires personalized service! Here’s your chance to learn everything you need to know about…
The Arlington-Aachen High School exchange is returning this summer and currently accepting applicants.
The sister-city partnership started in 1993 by the Arlington Sister Cities Association, which seeks to promote Arlington’s international profile through a variety of exchanges in education, commerce, culture and the arts. The exchange, scheduled June 17th to July 4th, includes a two-week homestay in Aachen plus three days in Berlin. Knowledge of the German language is not required for the trip.
Former participants have this to say:
_”The Aachen exchange was an eye-opening experience where I was fully immersed in the life of a German student. I loved biking through the countryside to Belgium, having gelato and picnics in the town square, and hanging out with my German host student’s friends. My first time out of the country, the Aachen exchange taught me to keep an open mind, because you never know what could be a life changing experience.” – Kelly M._
Learn about the new assessment of Arlington’s urban tree canopy and the many ecological and social benefits trees provide. Staff from the Green Infrastructure Center (GIC) will share study results and compare canopy cover for different areas of Arlington.The webinar will include assessments of ecosystem services such as stormwater mitigation, air quality, carbon uptake, and urban heat islands. For background on Arlington trees see the “Tree Benefits: Growing Arlington’s Urban Forest” presentation at http://www.gicinc.org/PDFs/Presentation_TreeBenefits_Arlington.pdf.
Please register in advance to assure your place at the webinar, https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/29543206508863839.
About the Arlington County Civic Federation: The Arlington County Civic Federation (“ACCF”) is a not-for-profit corporation which provides a forum for civic groups to discuss, debate, inform, advocate and provide oversight on important community issues, on a non-partisan basis. Its members include over ninety civic groups representing a broad cross-section of the community. Communications, resolutions and feedback are regularly provided to the Arlington County Government.
The next meeting is on Tuesday, February 21,2023 at 7 pm. This meeting is open to the public and will be hybrid, in-person and virtually through Zoom. Part of the agenda will be a discussion and vote on a resolution “To Restore Public Confidence in Arlington County’s Governance”. For more information on ACCF and this meeting, go to https://www.civfed.org/.
Valentine gifts for someone special or for yourself are here at George Mason University from noon -4pm on February 14, 2023. Satisfy your sweet tooth with Kingsbury Chocolates, find a handmade bag from Karina Gaull, pick up treats from Village