Law enforcement in Smyth County continues to struggle with placement of mental health patients


SMYTH COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – The heads of law enforcement agencies in Smyth County continue their battle in the fight for patient’s rights, specifically the rights of mental health patients.

In a recent story, News Channel 11’s Kelly Grosfield spoke with Smyth County Sheriff Chip Shuler and the police chiefs of Marion, Chilhowie and Saltville, all of whom expressed their concerns on the issue of extended wait times for these patients in terms of getting proper care.

In recent months, calls regarding people struggling with a mental health issue have become more difficult for departments in the sense that these calls are tying up resources.

Marion Police Chief, John Clair, attributes this issue in part to a recent executive order by Governor Ralph Northam that allows mental health facilities to delay accepting patients until there is an open bed, meaning officers can wait over 10 hours in an ER with these patients until that time comes.

The sheriff, alongside these police chiefs, met on January 4 to discuss the matter further and how to solve it. They ultimately ended up drafting a letter to state health and hospital officials, followed by a conference call the following week with those officials and others.

Clair said it’s uncertain whether or not that letter had an impact on landing them the conference call, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Following the call, both Sheriff Shuler and Chief Clair feel as if little was accomplished. Their goal in addressing the issue is to solve it before an incident breaks out. So far, they’ve seen smaller incidents result in a violent matter because of these long wait times.

A week ago, Sheriff Shuler shared the details of one of those incidents with News Channel 11. “We had a lady who was suffering from a mental health crisis who ended up assaulting hospital staff, destroying property inside the hospital. So instead of the mental health issues that she was there to address, she ended up being criminally charged,” said Shuler.

Chief Clair said he feels as if progress was made in regards to the challenges being experienced by law enforcement, but nothing involving progress with patient care.

“In terms of the patient challenges and the hospital challenges, I don’t think there was any progress. But to be fair, those conversations might be happening in other contexts that don’t involve us,” said Clair.

Chief Clair went on to say that he said in the conference he was under the impression the department of behavioral health wants to solve this issue.

News Channel 11 reached out to the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, which was also represented on the conference call.

An official spokesperson sent us this statement in regards to the matter:

“The hospital community has worked with partners regarding the alternate transportation program. That program is functioning, but we are aware of the issue with law enforcement and are doing our best to come up with alternatives, including the option of enabling those who work with the transportation program to take on an enhanced role and relieve law enforcement. We are certainly not blind to the challenges that exist and we are sympathetic to law enforcement.”

-Julian Walker, Vice President of Communications

Walker said everything is fluid right now and stressed their sympathy towards the situation law enforcement is in currently. He said they know more work needs to be done and their overall goal is to get patients the care that they need and deserve, along with relieving those officers waiting with these patients.

In a previous conversation with Sheriff Shuler, he said while it is unfortunate this is tying up law enforcement resources, his priority is still focused on the people he serves getting the proper care, a concern shared by Clair as well.

“I think we need to get away from these 40-50 hour wait times and get these people some help,” said Shuler.

Sheriff Shuler was on the call as well and said their message did not resonate the way it should have. He says while it is a step in the right direction for law enforcement, it’s still a struggle for these patients.

This was just one of many calls being had regarding this issue. Chief Clair said he recently spoke with an aide of Senator Todd Pillion, who Clair said was also sympathetic to the cause, given the fact that it affects the whole state and is not isolated to Smyth County.

Senator Pillion’s office sent News Channel 11 this statement:

“Mental health transports are a complex health and safety challenge that places law enforcement between an individual experiencing distress and the care that they need. While recent investments made by the General Assembly to establish an alternative transportation program (ATP) have helped alleviate the burden on law enforcement, the problem has been exasperated by COVID-19 and recent executive actions. For example, one of the police departments in my district has spent nearly 200 hours over the last 12 days at the ER with mental health patients. This is not helpful for anyone. My office is in communication with local law enforcement, law enforcement organizations, and the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) to identify possible budget language that would provide relief to local police and sheriff’s offices by expanding ATP. Those discussions are ongoing with multiple stakeholders as the General Assembly convenes this week and we hope a consensus is reached.”

“Every legislator that I’ve spoken to says that it’s something that they have heard about and the department of behavioral health seems aware that it’s happening all over the state,” said Clair.

He said in recent conversations with lawmakers, he had hopes that something will be done about this issue during this legislative session.

“I don’t want the fundamental question to get lost in there, which is the delay itself. I’m hoping that during this next legislative session that they’ll begin to discuss that delay and the way that delay can be alleviated along with addressing the law enforcement challenges and hospital challenges,” said Clair.

For Clair’s department, he hopes a solution comes sooner rather than later.

Since the first day of the year, the Marion Police Department has spent a total of 177 hours at the Smyth County emergency room with these patients. On January 5, they had four simultaneous events that absorbed 100% of operational capacity, leaving no officers to respond to other events.

Those events consisted of a 24 1/2 hour event, a 15-hour event and two 13 hour events. To date, their longest event occurred on December 31, lasting a total of 47 hours.

The issue continues to grow with another three simultaneous events on January 9 consisting of a 26-hour wait, 23 hours and 16 hours.

Clair also said following this wait time, it’s uncertain if they are even getting proper care after being seen. As of Tuesday, the evaluation of mental health patients is being done via Zoom with the only direct engagement these patients receive coming from their interaction with law enforcement and select hospital staff.

Moving forward, there is hope for a solution, but the challenge is far from over. “I have gotten an email from the state hospital, Southwestern State, wanting to set up a meeting with us, so I look forward to what we might accomplish there,” said Shuler.

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