Fredericksburg Virginia Police Chief Brian Layton

I cannot think of a more inspiring example of people working together to achieve positive outcomes in mental health and criminal justice reform, than the City’s pilot program for the Marcus Alert System. It’s a story of tragic loss, exceptional collaboration and 21st Century thinking.

In 2018, while suffering a mental health crisis at the age of 24, Marcus David Peters was shot and killed by Richmond police. His name, and this tragedy, became a centerpiece for widespread marches and protests, which led to the Marcus Alert law in 2020.

Under the Marcus Alert law, localities throughout Virginia are required to adopt a Marcus Alert System. The overall goal is to de-escalate the situation and shift the first responder’s intervention away from law enforcement and towards a behavioral health response, when a law enforcement encounter involves people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. In other words, toward mental health treatment and away from the criminal justice system, and hopefully avoid more tragedies like this. 

The Marcus Alert System is a set of protocols to: 

  1. initiate appropriate behavioral health response to certain behavioral health crises arising from mental illness, substance abuse, and/or developmental disability;
  2. divert such individuals to the behavioral health or developmental services system wherever feasible; and
  3. facilitate a specialized response by law enforcement when diversion is not feasible.

Full statewide implementation of the Marcus Alert System is required by 2026. Planning District 16, which includes FXBG, must have its system in place by June 2022.

Fredericksburg is way ahead of the curve on this, however. The Rappahannock Area Rappahannock Area Community Services Board (RACSB) and the Fredericksburg Police Department are collaborating on a Co-Response Pilot Program to prepare a system that must be implemented by June 2022 to comply with the Marcus Alert legislation.

This Pilot Program relies on police officers and mental health professionals who are trained to intervene in and de-escalate a mental health crisis. As part of the Pilot Program, police will go through 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) provided by RACSB. On the street, each shift will have a Co-Response Team consisting of a CIT trained police officer and a Trained Emergency Therapist, who will make a risk assessment and determine the appropriate level of intervention in each situation. 

This involves a four-level triage system that, in the absence of safety concerns, allows mental health professionals to divert the individual to an appropriate level of behavioral care. When safety concerns do exist, mental health professionals provide a supporting role to law enforcement. 

Another piece of the Pilot Program is determining, at the level of the 911 Dispatcher, whether the incident involves a behavioral health crisis or not and dispatching the appropriate mix of first responders to the scene. The Pilot Program is also exploring a proactive approach of identifying individuals who are at-risk for future behavioral health crises and providing services to them before a crisis happens.

Anticipated outcomes of the Co-Response Pilot Program in FXBG include:

  • Better Data on Behavioral Health Crises in our Community
  • Fewer Emergency Custody Orders
  • Fewer Emergency Room Visits
  • Fewer Use-of-Force Incidents involving Police
  • Better Community Awareness of Behavioral Health Resources
  • Improved Community Trust in Police
  • More Clarity on Effectiveness of Co-Responses
  • More Clarity on Best Practices for the final Marcus Alert System

Stay tuned for more on the Co-Response Pilot Program. We are moving into a new era of cooperation between law enforcement and mental health professionals, as our community works together to achieve positive outcomes in behavioral health and criminal justice reform.  It’s Time.