Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard says that the lack of beds in mental health facilities is compounding a mental health crisis and taking much-needed local officers off the streets for extended periods of time.
Currently, law enforcement officers must transport mentally ill individuals who are a danger to themselves and others to a state facility for treatment if a temporary detention order is issued. Those orders, which are issued by a magistrate, can last for up to 72 hours, tying up police officers who often have to sit with the individual until a bed is found.
“It is a significant drain on staff,” said town attorney Lisa Yeatts.
At a meeting before the Herndon Town Council earlier this month, DeBoard encouraged the town council to support state legislation that would prohibit the issuance of temporary detention orders when space is not available at a state health facility.
Often, state facilities do not have beds. And when they don’t, police officers must stay alongside the individual until a bed is available or the temporary detention order is lifted.
In one instance last month, two Herndon police officers — one of whom was certified but in training — had to transport a man who voluntarily agreed to come with police for mental health evaluation from his home. While on the interstate, the man began strangling himself in the backseat of the police car with the seatbelt.
Police pulled over, de-escalated the situation by force, and tried to find a bed for the man for 23 hours.
Eventually, they found a bed in Petersburg — nearly 141 miles from the Herndon Police Department. In another case, police officers had to travel to Roanoke with a person in a mental health crisis.
DeBoard noted that the crisis is complex and cannot be explained by a shortage of beds alone. State funding for private transportation, limited local resources, lack of coordination between mental health facilities and law enforcement were identified as other factors.
In July, five of the state’s eight mental health hospitals were closed to new admissions. The facilities were ordered to reduce their bed capacity and consolidate staff because of a workforce crisis that caused a “dangerous environment where staff and patients are at increased risk for physical harm,” according to Alisan Land, commissioner of the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Departmental Services.
The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation stated that law enforcement did not create this problem and cannot solve it alone. In a statement earlier this year, the organization wrote the following:
Mental health professionals have shared that it isn’t whether the person has insurance that determines whether a bed is found. The critical problem hospitals are facing is the growing number of violent persons in mental health crisis that the hospitals and mental health facilities can’t accommodate and that present a great risk for staff. We can empathize but law enforcement can’t solve this problem.
The state’s mental hospitals have been struggling for years to handle a spike in admissions. State law requires them to admit patients after eight hours if a bed can’t be found at another facility, including private ones.
Councilmember Signe Friedrichs said that she has seen the local health impact of this crisis. She got involved in a situation when an individual was screaming on the streets of the town, creating a stressful situation for the individual, the business owner involved, police officers called, and a taxi driver asked to come to the scene.
“All of these things are cascading and causing more difficulty for the police,” Friedrichs said.
The problem will require a solution with a coordinated effort from the state as it is a statewide challenge, DeBoard said.
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