Update at 4 p.m. on 3/15/22 — President Joe Biden has signed a $1.5 trillion spending bill with funding for three projects in Arlington.
In the 10 months it took for the funding to pass, Arlington County substantially completed two of the projects: repaving parts of the Bluemont Junction Trail and replacing a pedestrian bridge in Glencarlyn Park.
The county moved forward with them in the interim due to safety concerns and the uncertain nature of federal funding, Department of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Susan Kalish told ARLnow on Tuesday.
The funding will pay for any remaining work and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) is considering how to repurpose any unspent funds on similar projects, she said.
Earlier: A $1.5 trillion spending bill that cleared Congress on Friday has funding for three projects in Arlington.
The bill includes $13.6 billion in emergency aid for Ukraine’s fight against Russia and will fund the federal government through September, avoiding an impending government shutdown. Now the 2,741-page bill is headed to the desk of President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it this week.
The bill also sends Arlington County more than $1.4 million to pay for a health initiative and two parks projects, for which Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) requested federal assistance last May. In total, the spending package has $5.4 million earmarked for 10 projects in Northern Virginia, at Beyer’s request.
“This funding will translate to significant, beneficial projects in Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax County,” he said in a statement on Friday. “I am thankful to my colleagues who enacted the legislation to fund these initiatives, and to the local leaders who worked with me to identify and develop the initial requests. These projects will make a real, positive difference in our region.”
Arlington County’s Department of Human Services is getting $390,000 to purchase two medically equipped vehicles for a forthcoming mobile crisis response team. While not yet in existence, the team will be responsible for responding to behavioral health crises and providing on-site treatment.
The team was a recommendation of the Police Practices Group, which identified about 100 ways policing could be reformed in Arlington, including some ways the county could remove police officers from its mental health crisis response.
The county earmarked $574,000 in the current budget to staff the team with a physician’s assistant, nurse and clinician, and to buy a transport van and operating supplies.
DHS spokesman Kurt Larrick says the vehicles will be purchased once the County Board officially accepts and allocates the federal funding, which will take a couple of months. The mobile crisis response team, meanwhile, is “not up and running yet,” he said.
“County residents do have access to Community Regional Crisis Response services, however, which is a mobile crisis response,” he said. “And our Emergency Services staff can and do go into the community when need arises and staffing allows.”
The county will receive $325,000 to fund repaving and repairs for a segment of the Bluemont Junction Trail and adjacent connector paths. A 2018 trails assessment determined the Bluemont Junction Trail needed significant investments, as the condition of the asphalt is deteriorating in many sections.
The section paid for by the federal government spans the intersection of N. George Mason Drive and Wilson Blvd to the intersection of the trail with the Washington & Old Dominion Trail.
This project is divided into two phases, according to the county. The first phase, completed late last year, updated the main trail and most of its connecting paths. The second phase will update three remaining trail connectors, which need to be realigned to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Phase two construction is expected to begin and end this spring and early summer.
Arlington budgeted $550,000 in its 2022-24 Capital Improvements Plan for the project.
The county will also receive $800,000 for the replacement of a pedestrian bridge in Glencarlyn Park. The bridge, lost during the July 2019 flash flooding, was recently installed. The project was part of the adopted 2021 Capital Improvements Plan.
Outside of Arlington, local earmarks in the bill will support storm sewer and climate resilience improvements in the City of Alexandria and Falls Church City and improve information technology services in Fairfax County. It will also support a pilot program for the deployment of body-worn cameras in the Alexandria Police Department and safety improvements to the GW Parkway.
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.
“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.
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.
Arlington County Board member Matt de Ferranti says he has lots of questions for the county’s criminal justice system after an inmate died in the county jail two weeks ago.
On Saturday, he released a statement committing to figuring out why Paul Thompson, a homeless man arrested for trespassing at a place from which he was previous banned, died in the Arlington County Detention Center earlier this month. He also committed to avoiding preventable deaths at the jail.
“Typically, a number of state agencies — the Magistrate, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, and the Public Defender’s office and our Judges — along with the Arlington County Police Department and the Department of Human Services all have a role in cases like Mr. Thompson’s,” he said. “In my oversight role as a Board Member, I share in the responsibility to make sure we are doing everything we can.”
On Feb. 1, Thompson became the seventh man in seven years to die in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office. Six of the seven have been Black.
“We are failing men of color [and] we are failing people who are homeless in this community,” said Juliet Hiznay, an education and disability rights attorney and a member of the NAACP, during the County Board meeting on Saturday.
Last fall, the ongoing investigation into Becton’s death led to charges filed against a man police say falsified a patient record. It also prompted the Sheriff’s Office to change its jail-based medical provider, which was finalized within 24 hours of Thompson’s death.
And now, the death of Thompson — who did not have a criminal history but did suffer from a mental illness, Sheriff Beth Arthur told WTOP — is prompting greater scrutiny from the Arlington County Board.
“There will be follow-up in the coming weeks through the County Manager, and I personally will be following up in the short term,” de Ferranti tells ARLnow. “We do have to focus on solutions, and that’s why, I’ll be engaging with staff and subject-matter experts on this.”
Thompson’s death is being investigated by Arlington police and an autopsy is still pending, the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said today (Monday).
De Ferranti said he looks forward to answers to the following questions.
Fallon Sings About Pentagon Chicken — “That stroke of social media brilliance was followed by even more exposure as ‘The Tonight Show’ host Jimmy Fallon wrote a song for the bold bird. It began with the lyrics ‘Are you just a clucker or an undercover spy?’ We do not expect the Pentagon to answer.” [WTOP, Twitter, Facebook]
WBJ Calls Out Crystal City Erasure — “On Jan. 18, JBG Smith Properties announced it has started construction on a pair of multifamily towers at 2000 and 2001 S. Bell St., a block south of the Crystal City Metro station. In, I dare say, the heart of Crystal City. But in that 750-word press release, “Crystal City” does not appear. Not once. ‘National Landing,’ meanwhile, appears seven times.” [Washington Business Journal]
More on School Mask Judge — “The Arlington judge who dealt a blow Friday to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order making masks optional in schools is married to an Arlington teacher, but attorneys for Youngkin (R) and the school boards did not believe she should have recused herself.” [Washington Post]
More On Eyeglass Smash and Grabs — “Five men with hoods and heavy coats cased the store for about five minutes, Abbasi said, then smashed open the display cases holding Cartier, Gucci and Dior glass frames and made off with about $60,000 worth of merchandise. Surveillance video shows the five bandits rapidly shoveling the high-dollar frames into plastic bags while Abbasi is yelling at them and calling police, leaving a patina of shattered glass chunks in their wake.” [Washington Post]
‘Mental Health Crisis’ at County Jail — “Sheriff Beth Arthur said the man, Paul Thompson, should not have been there, pointing out he had no criminal history. But she admits he did suffer from mental illness like most of the county’s inmates… Of the 280 current inmates, some 170 have mental health challenges; 66 of them are serious. Even the longtime sheriff wants to know why the county is ‘dumping these people in jail when they need serious care.'” [WTOP]
Metro Budget Meeting Tonight in Courthouse — “Beginning Monday, February 7, Metro will hold the first of three public hearings for people to weigh in on Metro’s Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) budget. Hearings will be held next week and will provide for both virtual and in person public participation options.” [WMATA]
Beyer Challenger Launches Primary Bid — “An intra-party challenger to U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th) kicked off her campaign Feb. 2 with a singular plea to Arlington Democrats. ‘Give me a chance,’ Victoria Virasingh asked during a kickoff speech… An Arlington native, Virasingh – who did not level any criticism at Beyer or even mention him by name in her remarks – said her goal was to create ‘a community that is rich and thriving and has opportunity for all of us.'” [Sun Gazette]
It’s Monday — A slight chance of snow and freezing rain today before 9 a.m., then a slight chance of rain and snow after that. Otherwise partly sunny, with a high near 45. Sunrise at 7:07 a.m. and sunset at 5:37 p.m. Mostly sunny tomorrow, with a high near 43. [Weather.gov]
After Republican victories in Virginia last Tuesday, Arlington’s Democratic state legislators say their focus is preserving policy gains they made over the last few years.
Last week, Virginians elected Glenn Youngkin as Governor, Winsome Sears as Lieutenant Governor and Jason Miyares as Attorney General. Despite a slight shift right, Arlington overwhelmingly elected and re-elected all Democrat lawmakers.
“My top priorities are defense, defense and defense,” Rep. Rip Sullivan (D-48) told County Board members yesterday afternoon. “In light of last Tuesday, there are a lot of things that I’ll be interested in making sure we can preserve, in terms of things that have been accomplished over the last couple of years.”
County Board members met Tuesday with state lawmakers to outline the Board’s priorities for the upcoming legislative session — such as vehicle noise enforcement and virtual government meetings — and hear what legislators are focused on.
Among House representatives and state senators, there was an emphasis on preserving work done under outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam.
“In terms of playing defense, as whip for the House Democratic caucus, we are going to be incredibly vigilant in making sure that all of the progress we’ve made [is] not whittled away at the 11th hour, 59th minute, at 7 a.m. subcommittee meetings — that we are casting a very bright light on all the actions taken on the House floor so there’s a very clear record at the end of this long session that people know what they voted for,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49).
Looking to inject some optimism into the conversation, Board Member Christian Dorsey asked what areas could see bipartisan support. Legislators predicted bridging the aisle to reduce medical debt, expand broadband access, support small businesses, incentivize community college for in-demand jobs, fund mental health services and increase teacher pay.
More locally, the County Board and their state representatives had a number of overlapping priorities: allowing electronic meetings post-pandemic; improving access to childcare; firming up the rights of affordable housing tenants; and committing to environmental sustainability initiatives and teacher pay raises.
Top of mind for County Board members, however, is what they describe as an ongoing behavioral health crisis caused by the closure of most state psychiatric hospitals this summer and exacerbated by police and mental health services workforce shortages. The Board and county staff made the case for more state funding for community-based mental health services.
“This is very time sensitive and very important as we try to serve those most in need in Arlington,” Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said.
Without sufficient state beds to which to bring people in crisis, police have to detain people against their will in emergency rooms for multiple days while staff in the Department of Human Services make calls around the clock, searching for beds.
“They have no privacy, they’re in police custody day after day,” Arlington County Police Department Capt. Michael Rowling said. “I can’t imagine they’re getting better — they’re not getting treatment whatsoever.”
On a daily basis there are five to 10 individuals attended by police officers in the emergency department of Virginia Hospital Center waiting for a mental health bed, Human Services Deputy Director Deborah Warren said.
“It’s inhumane,” she said. “On the worst day of their lives, [people in crisis] are handcuffed to a gurney, under police supervision, agitated and maybe getting sedation.”
Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow, Startup Monday is a weekly column that profiles Arlington-based startups, founders, and other local technology news. Monday Properties is proudly featuring 1515 Wilson Blvd in Rosslyn.
The terms of the acquisition by Denver-based SonderMind are not public. But the purchase of the 6.5-year-old company came right as Qntfy was beta-testing its software, which analyzes users’ data to enhance people’s experience in therapy.
“Often, in therapy, the homework is to go home and record your thoughts, emotions, what’s happened, whatever we’re trying to track,” said Qntfy’s founder Glen Coppersmith, now the Chief Data Officer at SonderMind. “It turns out there are other ways to capture that information: Some of us have wearables that explain what our heart is doing, when we’re sleeping. Others of us have social media, and we’re explicit about what’s going on in our lives: we’re posting pictures with or without people, what we do.”
The software’s algorithm uses the data to estimate the mental health of the patient, which can then inform therapy sessions and improve the patient’s well-being over time, he said.
Coppersmith says the product was still being tested when a potential funder introduced him to the CEO of SonderMind in early 2021.
“And that went in a very different direction than any of us thought,” Coppersmith said. “They were building all these human systems, while we were building all the technology systems. We were building as the same company and yet, we’d never met.”
Through the acquisition, SonderMind has gained a data science team and Qntfy now has a way of integrating its algorithm into the mental health field, he said.
“Recruiting Glen and the Qntfy team adds additional depth to the comprehensive SonderMind experience,” SonderMind’s co-founder and CEO Mark Frank said in a statement. “This ultimately gets people better more quickly, more effectively, and at less cost over time.”
The algorithm will be built into SonderMind’s app, which is “very far along in development” and “coming in the very near term,” Coppersmith said.
The app will be available to residents in a dozen states, including Maryland and Virginia. In 2022, SonderMind will continue personalizing therapy using Qntfy’s system, he added.
Qntfy mostly operated remotely but had an Arlington office and its first check came from local co-working space Eastern Foundry.
As part of the office space’s first Foundry cup, the company awarded innovative approaches to understanding post-traumatic stress disorder — a particular interest of the company’s veteran founders, Coppersmith said.
“I’m not a vet, but my background is in computer science and psychology,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in using computers to understand human behavior… what makes people violent, and how do you understand and prevent that.”
While Coppersmith explored these questions during his graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, he discovered a “gaping hole” in available data on mental health outcomes.
“There’s immense pain, suffering and cost associated with mental health, but part of the real difficulty was that we couldn’t quantify objective measures of mental health and well being,” he said.
Since the available measures cost significant time and money, he turned to repurposing user data that would otherwise just get used to sell people goods and services.
To fund the research and development of that technology, Qntfy worked with clients seeking a greater understanding of mental health issues, including the George W. Bush Presidential Center, a nonprofit for veteran wellness.
“We were a standalone business incubating this product, taking contracts that allowed us to build the relevant technology for this, and we had enough and were going for rapid expansion,” he said. “This is a far better plan.”
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.
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]
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]
Low Water Pressure in Rosslyn — Updated 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]
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:
- Group materials
- Emergency housing placements
- Cell phones
- Obtaining proper identification cards
- Behavioral intervention consultation
Staff photo by Jay Westcott