Herring told mental health, drugs top police concerns

As part of a continuing “public safety tour” around the state, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring heard from law enforcement officials in the region Monday in Front Royal that one of their biggest worries — in addition to still-rising heroin and methamphetamine abuse — is in dealing effectively with prisoners who require mental-health evaluations and treatment.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring speaks with the region’s law enforcement officers Monday in Front Royal. | Rappahannock News
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring speaks with the region’s law enforcement officers Monday in Front Royal.

Front Royal Police Chief Norman Shiflett started the discussion by asking whether Herring’s office could help with a facility in the area where prisoners with mental health needs could be held while authorities try to find transportation to a proper treatment center. Often his officers are tied up for much of a day transporting such prisoners to facilities in Williamsburg or other equally distant places, Shiflett said.

Speaking to a roomful of primarily men in uniforms and suits from Warren, Page and Shenandoah counties and Virginia State Police’s Culpeper district (Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie C. Smith and Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff were unable to attend), Herring noted that he heard much about the same topic during his tours of the state last year. He said his office had provided some grant funding for Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, and that the General Assembly had taken recent steps to increase funding for regional mental health assessment centers.

His question to the attendees about where the nearest such assessment center was located was met with silence.

Capt. Todd Taylor of VSP’s Culpeper division pointed out that the five-county region that includes Rappahannock (along with Madison, Orange, Culpeper and Fauquier counties) was in the process of starting a regional CIT program — a program meant to speed the assessment of mental-health treatment needs, not the task of transporting those determined to need treatment to a proper facility.

“The folks are committed who are part of the steering committee for that group,” Taylor said of the five-county effort by law enforcement, public officials and county leadership. All five counties have committed funds to pay for a CIT coordinator and to hire trainers, Taylor said, but the process of applying for grant funding can’t begin until the coordinator is hired.

“There’s a lot of push on this, because in that region, we’ve had some serious encounters, one that was fatal, with an individual who was barricaded in a house and shot at our personnel a good part of the night,” Taylor said.

“If you run into too much red tape, let us know,” Herring said of the CIT group’s grant application process.

Herring said: “One of the things I had heard [on last year’s tour], loud and clear, was the amount of time that it took, whether for deputies or police officers, to hold someone waiting for an evaluation, or transporting them afterward. The goal for the regional assessment centers was to help free up some of that time and get the assessment done sooner, so no matter where you were in the state you were within a certain distance of one of those centers.

“If you have to wait six or eight hours for one of those assessments, for a small department, that’s too long.”

Shiflett said his officers will transport prisoners with symptoms of mental illness to the local hospital for evaluation, and that the “real problem” is not evaluation but the transport afterwards if hospitalization is warranted.

Page County Sheriff John Thomas suggested Herring look into possible changes to state code that prevents officers from taking a prisoner with mental-health symptoms into a “lock-up” facility, and which requires his personnel to therefore remain at the side of the patient while he or she is awaiting a bed, or transport to a facility. Thomas said he thought holding areas specially designated for mental-health cases might be considered for penal facilities in the state.

Capt. Taylor said the CIT program, which had “relatively large up-front costs,” had been proven to dramatically decrease public-safety costs “at the back end” — by decreasing the proportion of prisoners who had mental-health challenges in area jails.

Warren County Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron said when he was elected sheriff a decade ago, the percentage of prisoners at the county jail with mental disorders was about eight percent. “Last year, when we opened the regional jail,” it was 38 percent,” he said. McEathron said fewer crimes would likely be committed if those who require medication or treatment could get both more readily.

“Unfortunately,” Herring said, “too often someone who is suffering from mental illness ends up in the criminal justice system when they need treatment and hospitalization.”

Herring asked the group if they thought the past few years’ spike in addiction-related crime, in particular heroin, was leveling off.

“The short answer to that question is no, we haven’t seen a top-off yet,” said VSP’s Northwest Virginia Drug Task Force coordinator Jay Perry. “We’ve had eight deaths so far this year, we had 33 last year, so we’re at about the same pace again.”

Herring acknowledged, as Perry pointed out, the major markets for heroin in Virginia being Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and said his office is considering joining a multistate association of attorneys general that is looking at region-wide enforcement efforts.

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