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.”
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