Virginia institution order impacting how police departments handle mental health crisis


MARION, Va. (WJHL) – On July 9, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services announced that five of the commonwealth’s eight mental health hospitals would be temporarily closing their doors to new admissions.

That created a problem for police departments, which hold custody of individuals in mental health crises for 24 hours under emergency commitment orders. Those individuals are often placed in state mental hospital beds under temporary detention orders.

With five of the state hospitals closed to new patients, police departments must scramble to find beds for these individuals. The problem could soon be extended to Southwest Virginia.

The Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute in Marion was not one of the five suspending new admissions, but it is now one of only three in the state admitting new patients unless it reaches full capacity.

Marion Police Chief John Clair said that could change rapidly as the state currently averages about 18 new admissions per day.

“If we’re seeing 500 placements per month spread out over three facilities, I’d predict in a matter of days that it would have to take the same action,” Clair said.

The decision to limit admissions comes as institutions are dealing with massive job vacancies. A report from DBHDS Commissioner Alison Land said the department has 1,547 vacancies across its 5,500 person staff. Land said the vacancies have caused a dangerous environment. 4.5 injuries to patients and staff are reported per day.

Last year, Governor Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 70, which allowed institutions to delay intake of patients due to COVID-19 concerns or capacity issues. Now, the admissions are suspended in most facilities.

The decision put law enforcement agencies in a difficult position because they lose custody of an individual after 24 hours if no bed is found.

“If they can’t be placed, I don’t know what choice we have but to release them,” Clair said.

Police cannot maintain custody past that point because it becomes an illegal detainment then. That has forced the Marion Police Department to re-evaluate how it handles mental health crises.

“We’re going to have to actually examine how dangerous the people are. What’s the propensity they’re going to be placed? Are they any other options that can be taken? Can we convince other providers to take control of this patient before we take the custody,” Clair said.

That creates further problems for Clair because it puts his officers in an unfamiliar position.

“I think it’s a role that we don’t have any business being involved in, but we’re being forced into it,” Clair said. “You have to understand that law enforcement is a middle man, a delivery system.”

Clair said the institutions need “immediate surge staffing” to overcome the crisis and relieve the burden from law enforcement agencies.

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