Arlington builds call system to divert people in mental health crises from jail

Arlington 911 dispatcher at the county’s Emergency Communications Center (via Arlington County)

Arlington County is developing an alert system aimed at improving its emergency response to behavioral health crises.

The aim of the system, dubbed the Marcus Alert, is to keep people in crisis — due to a mental illness, substance use disorder or intellectual and developmental disabilities — from being arrested and booked in jail.

It comes from the Marcus-David Peters Act, which was signed into law in late 2020 and is named for Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old biology teacher who was killed by a police officer in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis.

Once operational, the system would transfer people who call 911 or 988 — a new national suicide and mental health crisis hotline — to a regional call center where staff determine whether to de-escalate the situation over the phone, dispatch a mobile crisis unit or send specially trained law enforcement.

Last summer, Arlington began developing its Marcus Alert plan, a draft of which needs to be submitted to the state by May 22. It’s asking residents to share their experiences with the county’s current behavioral health crisis response via an anonymous and voluntary survey open through mid-March.

Locals can also email the county to sign up to participate in focus groups, which will convene in early- to mid-March.

State law requires that the county’s final plan be implemented by July 1.

Arlington’s timeline for the Marcus Alert (via Arlington County)

“We are hopeful that with the Marcus Alert and increased community outreach and co-response, we will see a reduction in arrests of people with [serious mental illnesses],” Suzanne Somerville, the bureau director of residential and specialized clinical services for Arlington’s Department of Human Services, tells ARLnow. “The system is tremendously strained at this time and hospitalization for people that need it for psychiatric symptoms is not always easy to attain.”

DHS attributes the strain to COVID-19 and a lack of beds in state-run mental hospitals after the Commonwealth closed more than half of these hospitals to new admissions amid its own workforce crisis. This overwhelmed local hospitals and the Arlington County Police Department, and drove fatigued DHS clinicians and Arlington police officers to quit.

“Everyone is trying to do the right thing and get the client the services they need and deserve and we just don’t have the resources currently,” said Aubrey Graham, the behavioral health program manager for the Arlington County jail.

Bed shortages also impact court hearings, as many inmates with mental illnesses require competency restoration services to understand court proceedings and work with their defense attorney. Graham says inmates must go to Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services state hospitals, which limits beds even more.

Compared to other jurisdictions, Arlington sends proportionately more people to Western State Hospital for competency restoration, per data ARLnow requested from DBHDS. It also saw the greatest increase in admission rates between 2020 and 2021.

Competency restoration rates (courtesy of DBHDS)

Graham says she doesn’t know of any studies that explain why Arlington sees so many individuals with serious mental illnesses, but geography plays a role, as about 70% of people sent to state hospitals come from D.C., Maryland and other parts of Virginia. Only about 30% of those sent to state hospitals from Arlington are actually Arlington residents.

“Although there are a high number of competency evaluations requested in Arlington courts, the referrals are entirely appropriate, and most are deemed incompetent to stand trial,” Graham said.

That’s why police should not arrest them in the first place, says Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood, adding that people with mental illnesses are over-represented in the county jail, which is seeing a continued inmate deaths and may not have the resources to treat the needs of the mentally ill.

Haywood says the data points confirm what he’s observed while practicing in Northern Virginia.

“It’s really striking how many people are arrested with serious mental illness in Arlington,” he said. “DHS told me part of the issue is that there are more people in Arlington than other communities — I can also imagine police arrest more of them.”

Many arrests happen when people who experience delusions and paranoia related to political constructs flock to federal buildings such as the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport, Graham said.

“The airport has historically been a location that both homeless individuals and clients with serious mental illness are known to frequent,” Graham said. “There are high numbers of low-level misdemeanor charges that occur as a result of clients being at the airport.”

For its part, ACPD trains all officers in the Police Academy in de-escalation and active listening to better respond to individuals in crisis, according to a DHS presentation. Nearly 75% of patrol officers and 53% of all officers have completed the 40-hour training program run by DHS and ACPD.

Last year, the police department started a multi-year de-escalation training program. It’s also planning to offer advanced and refresher training courses.

There are times when officers have to conduct a custodial arrests, says ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage. These include situations where police are bound by mandatory arrest statutes, such as domestic violence, and whenever the individual won’t stop doing illegal behaviors.

“We recognize that individuals may suffer from mental illness or crisis and may not present indicators at the time of interaction with an officer,” she said. “Where signs of behavioral health crisis are known, there are multiple avenues of diversion — both in the community working with DHS and in the Detention Facility working with the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office.”

Anyone who calls (703) 527-4077 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or texts CONNECT to 855-11 can receive crisis intervention, suicide prevention support and information about community resources. Those in need can also call Arlington’s Emergency Mental Health Services at (703) 228-5160 for assistance.