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Localities make headway on Marcus Alert, but are still often missing emergency mental health response

Walls of Culpeper's S.E.E. Recovery Center.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Walls of Culpeper's S.E.E. Recovery Center.

Virginia’s localities are on a deadline to create a new kind of emergency response called a Marcus Alert, named for a young man who was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was killed by a Richmond police officer. 

Culpeper and its surrounding counties are one of several pilot sites for the program. The region has implemented a new dispatch system and police and mental health responders are working together more than ever before.

But there simply aren't enough behavioral health specialists to get police completely out of the picture.

Orange County emergency communication center is command central. Last year they answered 85,000 calls, says director Chris Cord.

“We have certain protocols that we’ll go through if it’s fire, EMS, or law enforcement in nature,” Cord explains.

The team here has adjusted those protocols to follow the new state-mandated Marcus Alert system. If a call is classified as mental health, but not yet an emergency, it gets redirected to a crisis call center.

“And they’ll have the resources and the training to talk that person down,” says Cord. On average, they’ve been transferring one or two callers a month. For more severe instances, they’re supposed to dispatch a team of two mental health clinicians, without police.

The problem is there is no mobile mental health team for adults. They’re being asked to divert calls to a resource that doesn’t exist yet.

“So that’s one of the hurdles we’ve had,” says Cord. So far there’s a single mobile crisis team in this part of the state, and they only respond to pediatric cases. They’re responsible for covering about five counties’ worth of emergencies in central Virginia.

But across the county line in the town of Culpeper, the Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services board has been able to provide counselors who go out with the police. It’s called the co-response program.

“I can recognize really quickly whether a crime’s been committed, I can recognize when somebody’s in crisis, I can recognize when somebody’s hopped up on some kind of intoxicant,” says lieutenant Brittany Jenkins. “But the bottom line is (the co-responders) have the training and what they can bring to the table to mitigate and de-escalate.

John Bankas is one of the co-responders who works with the town of Culpeper police department. One of his first days on the job a veteran had barricaded himself in a trailer and was threatening violence. Bankas, a professional counselor, says he focused on getting as close as he could and building rapport. For him that first point of connection is often his accent.

“The bridge was the accent, was what helped us to talk,” Bankas recalls. “And (the veteran) was asking me more questions and more questions, and so now I began to throw the questions back to him.”

Bankas says his training is geared more towards connection than safety. “Compassion, empathy, it's all part of the culture or the training of clinician.”

Ultimately the veteran was cooperative and went voluntarily to get treatment. Chris Settle is Culpeper’s chief of police and was there. He says if Bankas hadn’t been there they would have brought in a SWAT team.

“No doubt in my mind, in this situation, we would end up with use of force where the client would have got injured or a police officer would’ve got injured,” says Settle.

The local community service board has assigned two co-responders to Culpeper Police. The department would love to have triple the number, and to staff them 24/7.

“They have become a part of our team and for the community they're expected now,” says Jenkins. “So we are seeing a huge impact, and it's been nothing but positive.

One of those impacts across the region is an increase in people being referred to other services, like at Culpeper’s newly opened S.E.E Recovery Center. Cory Will is director of peer recovery services for the Community Services Board.

Walking around the space he points out several de-escalation spaces equipped with dark paint, comfortable chairs, calming sounds and music.

The S.E.E. Recovery center is a one-stop shop for mental health services. Low barrier access to these services is something Will had wanted to provide for a long time, but before the locality became a Marcus Alert pilot site there just wasn’t funding for it. Now people can access anger management, substance use education, and support groups. All for free.

“Have you ever had a situation where you're just not sure what to do or where to go?” says Will. “That’s what this is.”

They’re also somewhere police can bring people in crisis that’s not a jail cell or Emergency Department bed. For instance, the police recently brought in someone. Staff at the S.E.E. Center supported them and brought them into a quiet space while they worked the phones to find a hospital bed.

“They talked for awhile and then the person could smell the coffee and was just like, Hey, can I get coffee?” remembers Will. By the time they had a hospital bed lined up the person had settled. “Now this is somebody that was meeting criteria for hospitalization, after two and a half-three hours they were like, ‘You know, I think I'm feeling better. Can I come back tomorrow?’”

Sources we spoke to all agreed that the Marcus Alert is a good idea. But they also said there’s no point in building a new alert protocol when the state hasn’t first funded a robust community based mental health response to back it up.

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.