Virginia lawmakers have reached a tentative deal on legislation to reform the way police respond to calls involving people in mental distress, creating the framework for a statewide crisis response system named after a man killed by police in Richmond: Marcus-David Peters.
The “Marcus Alert” bill, as outlined in language shared Wednesday, would require that all police departments by 2026 are able to respond to emergency situations involving people facing mental or behavioral issues with mental health resources.
The House approved the deal in a 59-38 vote on Friday. The Senate delayed a vote on the bill until later this week, at the request of Republicans in the minority who argued they hadn’t had time to sift through the agreement.
Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, introduced the legislation in the House and said the agreement was a “good combination” of the House and Senate versions of the bill. Bourne said the bill keeps the House’s goals of limiting police interaction with people in crisis.
“This creates a system of care and response for those incidents where someone is in a mental health crisis or exhibiting signs of mental health distress,” Bourne said.
Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, who sponsored alert legislation in the Senate, said it still gives flexibility to localities who have ongoing efforts that might fit into the goals of the “Marcus Alert,” some in conjunction with ongoing state programs.
“We don’t want them to have to redo everything, but rather deploy those resources in alignment,” McPike said.
It’s unclear if the final version of the legislation meets the goals of the Peters family. The family in an August statement described ongoing legislative efforts as “false victories,” arguing that the legislation did not go far enough to prevent deadly encounters between police and people in mental distress.
Princess Blanding, who worked with lawmakers at the start of the session on “Marcus Alert” legislation, on Wednesday declined to comment on the final bill when reached by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher, was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer during a mental health crisis in May 2018 after charging at the officer on the side of Interstate 95/64 near downtown Richmond.
Peters’ case prompted calls for action at the time, but interest renewed after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May. When Richmond’s Lee Circle became a gathering place for protesters, they called the area Marcus-David Peters Circle.
The agreement now before the legislature would require the departments of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, and the Department of Criminal Justice Services to develop protocols related to how police agencies should respond to and interact with people facing mental distress or who have a developmental disability.
The goals, as outlined in the legislation, include: reducing the likelihood of physical confrontation; decreasing arrests and use of force by law enforcement; decreasing the use of psychiatric hospitalization and mental health treatment in jails; ensure people facing crisis receive behavioral health services; and more.
Law enforcement agencies would be required to adopt those protocols by July 2022. Those protocols would lay the groundwork for participation in regional crisis response networks.
Those networks would include access to mobile crisis units and “crisis stabilization centers” where people in crisis could receive short-term care.
The first five networks — one in each region — would be rolled out by December 2021. Five additional ones would be rolled out by July 2023. All localities would be served by one by July 2026.
Missing from the bill are provisions in Bourne’s original legislation that would limit what kinds of weapons law enforcement could use when they were responding, and in some instances, requiring they be in civilian clothing.
“We struggled with outright saying they shouldn’t show up in uniform. Some small localities maybe only have one or two officers on duty at one time,” he said. “We stressed the importance of that and went as far as we could go.”
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