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Mental Health Patients Can Wind Up in Police Cars, That Will Change in Southwest Va in October

Dept. of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services


A big change is coming to mental health treatment in southwest Virginia. The state is rolling out a new way to transport people in crisis. 


Here’s how things work now. Anyone having a mental health crisis, whether they’re 5 years old or 90 years old, is handcuffed and loaded into the back of a police car for the trip to a psychiatric hospital. 

Daniel Herr, with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, says lawmakers have recognized the better way is to treat people like patients not criminals. 

“When they are transported by law enforcement it provides for the security needs but it really adds to the concern about stigma and more restrictive treatment,” says Herr. 

So the state has contracted with a private security firm to take over the task. Drivers are trained in mental health and they’ll transport people without restraints and in unmarked cars. 

“You would not notice anything different from the outside but when you open the door what you would immediately see is that there are plexiglass partitions between the driver and the passenger,” describes Herr. 

The vehicles also have plastic covered seats, no sharp or dangerous objects, and cameras that can record both the driver and the patient. 

The hope is that it also eases the burden on law enforcement, especially in rural parts of the state. Transferring mental health patients can take up several hours of an officer’s time. 


The new transportation services begin in southwest Virginia the second week of October. They’ll roll out statewide over a couple of years.

Lawmakers have funded $4 million a year for the program. 


This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.


Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.