At the ceremonial signing into law of the “Marcus Alert” establishing a framework for a statewide crisis response system named after Marcus-David Peters, who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis, Peters’ sister denounced the measure as “watered down and ineffective.”
Gov. Ralph Northam had approved the legislation, sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, on Nov. 5. The signing that took place on Tuesday in front of the Executive Mansion was ceremonial. Northam called it a “solemn occasion” honoring the 24-year-old high school biology teacher who was killed during his very first mental crisis.
To the governor and those lawmakers, Princess Blanding said from a lectern at the news conference: “Please take a moment to pat yourselves on the back for doing exactly what this racist, corrupt, and broken, may I also add, system expected you all to do: make the Marcus Alert bill a watered down, ineffective bill that will continue to ensure that having a mental health crisis results in a death sentence.”
At issue for Blanding are the discretionary role of police, the timeline for implementation and the potentially disjointed application of the system across the state, she said in a phone interview after the news conference.
The law directs the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to work alongside the Department of Criminal Justice Services and local law enforcement in the system’s creation and their involvement in responding to these crises. It fails to limit police involvement in situations where there is no immediate safety threat or regulate their use of lethal weapons when responding, as initially proposed.
Blanding further admonished the lawmakers for making ineffectual a separate bill that establishes civilian review boards for police departments and killing a bill that would have ended qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.
“I say to each and everyone of you: Fix it,” she said.
Those legislators who spoke after Blanding applauded the effort as a “first step.”
“This bill doesn’t go far enough,” said McClellan, who is running for governor. She ultimately supported the bills approved by both chambers after her initial proposal was rejected by her Senate colleagues.
“This is a first step. To put the funding in place, to building the workforce, the behavioral health workforce on the front lines who can respond in a crisis. For years, our mental health system has been strained beyond the breaking point. ... While this is a first step, it cannot and will not be the last.”
Bourne, the patron of the House version of the bill, admitted that the legislature may have to revisit the law to “course correct and make improvements,” but he vowed: “We’re going to get this right.”
“While the bill may not be perfect, we are going to work as hard as we can to save as many lives and get people the treatment and help that they need. Because for far too long, not only in the commonwealth, but in this country, we have criminalized mental health rather than treated mental health. So, this bill may be a small step in that journey,” he told those gathered Tuesday.
When the special session on COVID-19 and police reforms was called, Bourne said he knew he wanted to carry a bill that changed how police respond to calls involving people in mental distress and reached out to Blanding to gauge her support.
“I want to do this, but I won’t do it if you won’t be with me,” he said he told her. “She stood for as long as she could with me, and fought hard to get us to this point today.”
Bourne’s initial version was retooled as it went through the House to align with a Senate bill championed by McPike after that chamber rejected McClellan’s. Bourne’s and McClellan’s initial bills, unlike McPike’s, delineated a limited role for officers. As written, the law allows for discretion among law enforcement and localities to decide how they want to implement the system.
By July 2021, a plan that outlines minimum standards, best practices and protocols for law enforcement participation in the system should be in place. Then, the first five regional crisis response networks — one in each of the state’s behavioral health regions — will be rolled out by December 2021, with five more coming by July 2023. All localities would be served by a mobile crisis team by July 2026 — four years later than first proposed.
The General Assembly allocated $14.9 million in the budget it passed in October to carry out the legislation.
“This is a significant and major culture shift that says we’re going to put in resources where it matters. To the front lines, to make an immediate difference in people’s lives, the potential to interact and save a life, to redirect and divert people early, not into the criminal justice system, not behind bars, but into a place that can actually provide a framework of support to connect the dots to resources,” McPike said at Tuesday’s signing.
“Things won’t change overnight,” he said. It will take continued effort and investment, to which he and the other legislators committed Tuesday.