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Department of Human Services Director Anita Freedman and Deputy Director Deborah Warren (via Arlington County)

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.

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Morning Notes

Order in Briscoe Case Likely Unconstitutional — “A judge dismissed the protective order Wednesday, and two legal experts said such blanket bans on speech violate the U.S. Constitution. Yet [local TikTok personality Coco] Briscoe, who has filed her own police report, could still be guilty of a misdemeanor, in a case that shows how social media disputes can run out of control and into the First Amendment.” [Washington Post]

County Recruiting for New Mental Health Group — “Arlington County is seeking community members to join a stakeholder group that will help Arlington County Government implement the requirements of Virginia’s new Marcus-David Peters Act. The Act, which was signed into law in late 2020 by Governor Ralph Northam, will create a statewide mental health alert system, also known as Marcus Alert, to ensure behavioral health experts are involved in responding to people in crisis.” [Arlington County]

Amazon Touts Va. Investments — “Out of Amazon’s total dollars dedicated to infrastructure and compensation in Virginia, Northern Virginia has collected the vast majority — almost 84% — a tally of $28.5 billion from 2010 to 2020, company spokeswoman Emily Hawkins said… Amazon’s most recent tally of hiring for its Arlington second headquarters is 1,600 corporate employees, Hawkins said — an early step toward the company’s plans to hire at least 25,000 total by 2030.” [Washington Business Journal]

Recognition for County Code Enforcers — “The Arlington County Code Enforcement Section of the Inspection Services Division (ISD) is the first property maintenance enforcement agency in Virginia to obtain accreditation from the International Accreditation Services (IAS).” [Arlington County]

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Morning Notes

Manafort Home Up for Sale — A house in the Clarendon area that was once sought as a forfeiture to the federal government as part of the case against Paul Manafort is now up for sale. The house is owned by Manafort’s daughter, though the feds once argued that it was paid for by Manafort with money transferred from a shell company in Cyprus. The 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath home is listed for $2.35 million. Manafort was pardoned by President Trump late last year. [Realtor.com]

Northam Announces Mental Health Funding — “Governor Ralph Northam today announced that the Commonwealth will commit $485 million in federal and state funding to address pressing challenges in Virginia’s behavioral health system. The plan includes targeted investments to alleviate pressure on state mental health hospitals, strengthen community-based services, and increase support for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs. The Governor made the announcement at the Arlington County Community Services Board and was joined by Senator Adam Ebbin and Delegates Mark Sickles, Patrick Hope, and Alfonso Lopez.” [Press Release, Twitter, Twitter]

Nearby: Route 1 Fight Brewing in Fairfax Co. — “There’s another fight brewing over a Route 1 redesign, this time in Fairfax Co. Neighbors feel VDOT has once again sought to make the road too wide for it to be walkable, posing safety issues.” [Twitter, Washington Business Journal]

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Morning Notes

Low Water Pressure in RosslynUpdated at 9 a.m. — “LOW WATER PRESSURE: Customers in the Rosslyn area may be experiencing low water pressure due to a water main break on Key Blvd b/w N Edgewood St and N Danville St. Crews have been dispatched. Expected completion time: TBD. An update will be provided once we have more information.” [Twitter]

Changes to Crystal City Development — “JBG Smith Properties is shrinking plans for a pair of residential towers at 2000 and 2001 South Bell Street in Crystal City in a bid to get them approved after Arlington County planners raised concerns about its height. The developer filed revised plans for the Amazon-adjacent development earlier in July, lopping off several stories of each proposed tower to appease Arlington officials.” [Washington Business Journal]

New Sheriff’s Office Employee — “On July 20, 2020, the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office welcomed Diana Fetterer to the Pretrial Section, where she will begin her new role as a member of the newly established Behavioral Health Docket Team… The Behavioral Health Docket is scheduled to start in September 2020.” [Arlington County]

Flash Flood Watch Today — “Showers with scattered thunderstorms are expected overnight through Friday. Locally heavy rainfall may produce flooding. A Flash Flood Watch is now in effect for much of the region.” [Twitter]

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Arlington County has accepted a grant that will help expand the county’s Behavioral Health Docket program — a service that diverts people with mental illnesses into treatment rather into jail.

The program accepts people who have diagnosed mental illnesses and have been charged with misdemeanors. Last November, a requirement for those in the program to plead guilty was eliminated.

The $146,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services will primarily go to funding a full-time therapist position for two years. According to the staff report:

The position will assist program participants in developing and enhancing skills related to self-care, physical wellness, development of family and peer leisure pursuits, conflict resolution, stress management, positive peer modeling, developing a greater level of independence, improving treatment compliance, and increasing access to recreational groups and self-help groups (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous). Projected caseload for this position is 16-20 clients based on benchmarking and past experience.

“[This is] going to expand the behavioral health docket program services,” said County Board Chair Libby Garvey, “something advocated for and needed for quite a while.”

The staff report says that other parts of the grant funding will go to:

  • Medications
  • Group materials
  • Emergency housing placements
  • Transportation
  • Cell phones
  • Incentives
  • Clothing
  • Obtaining proper identification cards
  • Behavioral intervention consultation

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Officials and activists are asking the county courts to make a newly-proposed mental health jail diversion program more inclusive.

Arlington and Fairfax public defenders joined several advocates during a Thursday evening meeting about the proposal, and urged county officials to broaden the mental illnesses diagnoses accepted in the program and not require plea bargains as a participation requirement.

Brad Haywood, who leads the Office of the Public Defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, shared a list of changes his office wants the county to make to the proposal before the county submits the application to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Juliet Hiznay, a special education attorney by training, joined him on Thursday to express concern that only some “serious mental illnesses” were considered shoe-ins for the program, which is called the Behavioral Health Docket.

Hiznay said she was worried that people with developmental disabilities (like ADD or autism) could also benefit from the court-supervised treatment plan, but would be considered “exceptions” under the current eligibility criteria.

Much of the evening focused on discussing whether the county should require participants to plead guilty to their charges before participating in the program (as is currently proposed) or allow them to follow the docket program and then have a trail (as Fairfax County does.)

“Because it requires a guilty plea it literally can’t decriminalize mental illness,” said panelist Lisa Dailey, who analyzes and advises mental illness decriminalization policies at the Treatment Advocacy Center. “So if that’s your goal you’re failing right out of the gate.”

When Arlington Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lisa Tingle asked Fairfax Public Defender Dawn Butorac asks whether the Fairfax docket convicts participants of their charges if they fail out of the program, Butorac said Fairfax prosecutors set no such deals.

“Telling your client ‘if you fail this is what we’re going to do’ is sending the wrong message,” Butorac said.

Haywood pointed out that another benefit of nixing the pre-plea requirement was getting people into treatment fast — something not possible if the county’s tedious discovery process slows down the process.

Haywood also noted that requiring pleas to participate in the mental health service could lead innocent people to say they were guilty in order to access services. He acknowledged that was an “extreme” hypothetical but could be avoided if the county followed Fairfax County’s example of only contending with pleas after a participant finishes their docket treatment plan.

“We are much more inclusive than Arlington,” Butorac said of Fairfax’s docket, which was created after a mentally ill woman was tasered.  “When we drafted it, we wanted it to be as inclusive as possible.”

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(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) Courts in Arlington County will no longer legally declare people drunks and arrest them for drinking alcohol after a federal court ruled the old law unconstitutional.

A full panel of judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a state law called “interdiction” which allows counties to label people “habitual drunkards” and prosecute them for having or drinking alcohol. The judges ruled 8-7 last week that the law left the meaning of habitual drunkards “unconstitutionally vague” and constituted cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

“We hope that this means that our clients can have the debilitating label ‘habitual drunkard’ lifted from them and they can move through their lives without constant fear of prosecution,” said Elaine Poon, the managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center which has helped lead a class-action fight in court to overturn the law for the last three years.

Prosecutors in Arlington this week dismissed seven active cases brought under the nullified law, and police have suspended enforcement — though laws against public drunkenness and other alcohol-related crimes remain on the books.

“In accordance with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruling, the Arlington County Police Department has suspended enforcement of the Virginia Code sections related to alcohol interdiction,” said ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage. “No arrests or charges will be sought in relation to those code sections.”

Brad Haywood, Arlington’s Chief Public Defender, said attorneys in his office were notified about the change Thursday morning when they showed up to court, and his office was “ecstatic” to hear the news last week.

“This has been an issue that defense attorneys and social workers have been fighting for decades,” he said. “Since the first day I’ve worked a public defender 15 years ago there were concerted efforts to overturn this law.”

Case Dismissed 

The case, Manning v. Caldwell, is named after Roanoke man Bryan Manning. A judge declared Manning a “drunkard” nine years ago under the interdiction statute without Manning present because the man, who is homeless and had struggled with alcohol addiction for several years, can be difficult to find. Over the next eight years, Manning racked up over 30 charges related to possessing alcohol or being suspected of drinking it, and the frequent arrests often cost him jobs and led to him losing his possessions.

Manning isn’t the only one: in Arlington, one interdicted man has been charged 37 times, per data the prosecutor’s office shared with ARLnow.

The same data shows 12 people have been interdicted in Arlington since 2015, and in total there are 50 interdicted in the county — with each person averaging 19 prosecutions. Between 1996 and 2015, there were 1,220 people legally declared drunks across Virginia, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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Some officials and residents are asking for more time to review a jail diversion program for people with mental illnesses, saying the county developed it without enough public input.

About a hundred people gathered in the County Board’s meeting room Wednesday afternoon for a meeting called after activists requested a chance to weigh in on the new criminal justice program. Attendees expressed general support for the “Behavioral Health Docket” but worried about its requirement that participants plead guilty to participate, adding that the county needed to listen to more members of the public before finalizing the program.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind is that even if the application is a post-plea docket, which is what Judge [Fran] O’Brien would like to see happen, that there’s going to be evolution,” said Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Anita Friedman in an interview. “I think that even if we start post-plea we might add pre-plea later.”

“I think the important thing is not to let perfection be the enemy of good,” she said, noting that the county has revised its other diversion program, Drug Court, many times over the last few years.

The Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia must approve the county’s request to form the diversion program. DHS originally planned to apply for that approval last month before a group of activists and officials, including incoming prosecutor Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, said they hadn’t heard about it and had concerns.

After the meeting, officials did not confirm whether they would extend their plan to submit the application in September, or would schedule additional public meetings.

Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood was one of the officials who said he hadn’t heard about the application until very recently. On Wednesday, Haywood said he still supported for the docket but reiterated concerns about the post-plea condition.

“I really want to make sure that as many people as possible are getting into this program, and getting in as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that requiring pleas could “dramatically reduce” the number of participants and how fast they can join it.

The Behavioral Health Docket will accept participants who have pled guilty to a misdemeanor offense, or a felony reduced to a misdemeanor, and reside in Arlington, according to a program description obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. People with a history of felony convictions, sexual offenses, or have active warrants out for their arrest in other jurisdictions cannot participate, per a copy of the application ARLnow obtained after filing a FOIA request.

Participants would have to meet weekly in court as well as their probation officer, mental health clinician, per the application. Participants will also have to pass drug and alcohol screenings, take any medications prescribed, participate in activities like volunteer work or employment, and stay clear of any new arrests. Over time, participants will meet less frequently as they work towards a “graduation” where they’ll be supervised for another 90 days.

“That’s why it’s called a therapeutic docket,” said Judge O’Brien. “It’s designed to help people with mental illness and designed to help keep them on a path that keeps them out of the criminal justice system.”

She told the audience that it was imperative to move quickly because of the sheer number of people affected. Earlier that day, she said five people on her docket were clients of the county’s behavioral health services and where “chronic violators” of their parole. Recently, she said one defendant disappeared after appearing to get better and family members were concerned he was off his medications.

“All I wanted to do is try to find him before he got too far gone,” said O’Brien. “Because I didn’t have that power because he wasn’t on my docket, so I had to issue a warrant for his arrest.”

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Arlington County is considering a new program to divert people with mental illnesses into treatment instead of jail.

The proposed program would waive incarceration for people with mental illnesses who are convicted of non-violent misdemeanors if they agree to an intensive treatment program supervised by a judge. All the officials who spoke to ARLnow about the program supported it, but some weren’t aware the county was working on the program and said they had little opportunity to add input.

The Arlington County’s Department of Human Services is spearheading the program. A spokesman told ARLnow on June 27 that in response to “recent requests” it would host a public meeting on the so-called Behavioral Health Docket on Wednesday, July 17 at 3 p.m. The location of the meeting has yet to be determined.

“The aim is to divert eligible defendants with diagnosed mental health disorders into judicially supervised, community-based treatment, designed and implemented by a team of court staff and mental health professionals,” said DHS Assistant Director Kurt Larrick.

This new docket aims to accept defendants 18 or older who reside in Arlington and who are diagnosed with a serious mental illness, Larrick said. Additionally, only defendants who have been charged with misdemeanors, not felonies, would be eligible for the diversion program. Defendants would need to agree to work with a team of mental health professionals and program staff to enroll in the docket and agree to follow a treatment plan with some supervision.

“These programs are distinguished by several unique elements: a problem-solving focus; a team approach to decision-making; integration of social services; judicial supervision of the treatment process; direct interaction between defendants and the judge; community outreach; and a proactive role for the judge,” Larrick said.

Where Mental Illness and the Law Collide

Officials and advocates say they hope that the docket will help break the cycle of recidivism that some people with mental illnesses fall into.

“Arlington has a significant number of people with mental illnesses that intersect with the criminal justice system,” Deputy Public Defender Amy K. Stitzel told ARLnow. “Evidence-based mental health dockets not only treat instead of criminalizing behavior that is a result of mental illness, they increase treatment engagement, improve quality of life, reduce recidivism and save money.”

“We’re talking about people who are arrested for vagrancy and loitering and trespassing,” said Naomi Verdugo, who has been an activist for people in Arlington with mental illness for several years. “These are largely misdemeanors and stupid things, and it’s because they aren’t well. We would be better off putting services around them than paying to incarcerate people who are just going to reoffend.”

“It is clear that the local and regional jails in Virginia have a substantial number of persons with mental illness in their care, and that this care is costly to the localities and to the Commonwealth,” says a 2017 study of similar programs statewide.

The most recent data from Virginia jail surveys indicate that statewide 1 in 10 of the inmates counted was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, such as PTSD or schizophrenia, and about 20% of all inmates had some kind of mental illness.

In Arlington, data from 2016, 2017, and 2018 indicates the most common diagnoses for inmates are bipolar disorder/major depressive and schizophrenia.

Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood said his office has been part of a team discussing mental health improvements for 15 years with the county’s Mental Health Criminal Justice Review Committee, and for the past five years with a subcommittee dedicated to creating a docket, called the Behavioral Health Docket Committee. Haywood strongly supports the idea of a Behavioral Health Docket but noted his office wasn’t notified the county had advanced plans for the docket until recently.

“This is not a transparent approach”

While he applauded DHS for moving the program forward, Haywood said he would have liked more input on the design when organizers decided to require defendants plead guilty before participating in the program.

“From our perspective, until early spring of 2019, the process for drafting and submitting an application for the Mental Health Docket seemed to be moving very slowly,” he said. “I don’t know what changed that took the process to where it is now, to having tight deadlines and short comment periods.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who recently won the Democratic primary against incumbent prosecutor Theo Stamos, said she heard about the docket for the first time two weeks ago. During her campaign, Tafti advocated for a mental health court as part of larger criminal justice reforms, but said she wasn’t given a chance to comment on the Behavioral Health Docket.

She told ARLnow that she has concerns the new program “criminalizes mental illness” by requiring a plea to participate.

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Morning Notes

County Auditor Probes Police Overtime — “A performance audit conducted by the County Auditor as part of his Fiscal Year 2018 work plan found that the Arlington County Police Department’s overtime costs exceeded budgeted expenses in Fiscal Years 2016, 2017 and 2018. The audit did not identify any evidence of improper overtime.” [Arlington County]

Few Fireworks in School Board Race — “A relatively low-key race for the Democratic endorsement leading into November’s School Board race is headed to three days of caucus voting, with the two candidates focused more on the issues than landing body blows on each other. ‘I would prefer to talk about how we are going to move in a positive direction in the future,’ challenger David Priddy said when asked to lay out the biggest failures of the School Board during the period incumbent Reid Goldstein has served on it.” [InsideNova]

ACPD and Mental Health Awareness Month — “In 2018, the Arlington County Police Department responded to 2,227 calls for service involving individuals in mental health crisis — a figure that has risen each year since 2015. To increase awareness about Department initiatives and resources, we are sharing information about how we interact with the public, and how we are ensuring that our officers have the resources they need to continue to provide professional police services to our community.” [Arlington County]

School Board Member Endorses Tafti — Arlington School Board member Monique O’Grady has endorsed Commonwealth’s Attorney challenge Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in her race against incumbent Theo Stamos. [Facebook]

Launch of ‘Housing Arlington’ — “Go bigger. Be bolder. We’ve heard from Arlingtonians that housing affordability — rental & ownership — demands even more aggressive solutions. So we’re launching ‘Housing Arlington’ tonight to tackle the challenge — together.” [Twitter]

Arlington Firm Acquires Health Insurance Company — “Arlington health system consultancy Evolent Health Inc. has reached a deal to take majority ownership of a Kentucky health insurance provider… Evolent’s stock price dipped more than 28% to $10.15 per share in Wednesday afternoon trading on the news.” [Washington Business Journal]

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Morning Notes

Bar Owner Trolled By ‘Catfish’ Account — Someone is impersonating Scott Parker, co-owner of A-Town, Don Tito, Barley Mac and G.O.A.T., on social media, in an apparent attempt to damage his reputation. The “catfish” recently sent a journalist a profanity-laced rant that encouraged her to kill herself. [Washingtonian, Twitter]

Columbia Pike Water Main Break — Crews are currently working to repair a water main break on the 5500 block of Columbia Pike. The street is partially blocked and some 50-100 water customers have their service affected by the break. [Twitter]

Local Mother Grapples With Son’s Mental Illness — “The night of March 31, 2017, he became so inconsolable, screaming and weeping, that she called the police and had him involuntarily hospitalized at an Arlington hospital. He stayed two weeks, but because he is an adult, and because a hospital must release people from involuntary care when it no longer believes they meet commitment standards, doctors discharged him.” [Washington Post]

Wardian Strikes Again — “A little over a week ago, [ultramarathoner Michael] Wardian pulled off one of his most challenging back-to-backs yet, running the Pikes Peak Marathon, featuring 7,815 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of loss on a rugged mountain course that tops out at 14,115 feet – in 6 hours, 2 minutes and 55 seconds, mere hours after finishing tenth in the Leadville 100 in 20 hours, 18 minutes and 57 seconds.” [Medium]

County Testing New ‘ePlan’ Payments — Arlington County is seeking users to test its new electronic payments system for those filing Building Permits, Land Disturbing Activity (LDA) Permits and Civil Engineering Plans (CEP) online. The system is likely to be seen as progress by those who have previously critiqued the county’s cumbersome permitting process. [Arlington County]

Last Call for Christmas Tree Recycling — Friday is the last day for recycling Christmas trees via curbside pickup in Arlington. ‘Recycled’ trees will be turned into mulch. [Arlington County]

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