Local police chiefs renew calls for change in Virginia’s mental health system

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) – The Chesterfield County Police Chief is again drawing attention to the mental health system and its impact on the police force.

Chesterfield County Police Chief Jeffery Katz posted a photo on Facebook of a long line of law enforcement vehicles outside Chippenham Hospital on Thursday evening. All cars had officers transporting mental health patients to medical professionals. Katz said some of the patients were children.

He said it sometimes took officers 10 hours to transfer patients out of custody to mental health care providers.

The message read: ‘Our mental health system, made up of many wonderful people, is so fundamentally broken that it does a better job of keeping the police off the streets than providing timely care to people in crisis.’

Julian Walker, a spokesperson for the Virginia Hospital Healthcare Association, said demand for mental health treatment rose during the height of the pandemic and has continued to rise.

“State-run adult psychiatric facilities had to stop admitting new patients because they had a lack of capacity and a staffing problem,” he said. “This of course also has an impact on private hospitals and creates a ripple effect for other public safety entities.”

Katz said the ripple effect can also impact social services and law enforcement.

Prince George’s County Police Chief Keith Early responded to Katz’s social media post, saying his officers spent approximately 525 hours responding to mental health-related calls in 2021.

“A lot of times people who are going through mental health crises, sometimes their first contact with the system is through a law enforcement officer,” Walker said.

According to Walker, major staffing and overcrowding issues in Virginia mental health facilities existed before 2020 and 2021, but the pandemic has intensified them.

“There has been an outcry from a multitude of stakeholders who continue to invest in the system, for continued efforts to reform the system, so that we can provide patients with the right care in the right setting at the right time” , did he declare.

This year’s budget legislation relating to mental health funding awaits consideration by the General Assembly.

“Right now, he’s still investing a significant portion of available resources into the state-run system,” Walker said.

The legislation proposed millions of dollars for state-run mental health facilities and mental health personnel.