WASHINGTON COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – An emergency call service is rolling out systematically in Virginia, starting in five regions including Washington County. The system aims to reform response to mental health crises.

The system is being implemented in phases, the first of which comes after the 2018 killing of Marcus-David Peters at the hands of Richmond Police. He charged an officer while experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

Last year, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Marcus-David Peters Act which allows people to call 9-8-8 instead of 9-1-1 to have behavioral health specialists respond.

Community services boards (CSBs) in the five regions rolling out the pilot program since Dec. 1, 2021, have been tasked with creating a plan of action for each area.

Those regions are as follows:

  • Region 1: Orange, Madison, Culpeper, Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties
  • Region 2 : Prince William County
  • Region 3 : City of Bristol and Washington County, including the Towns of Abingdon, Damascus, and Glade Spring
  • Region 4 : City of Richmond
  • Region 5 : City of Virginia Beach

The CSB for Region 3 is Highlands Community Services and Executive Director Rebecca Holmes is at the helm of the project.

“The Marcus Alert is intended to be an opportunity to create a behavioral health response for a behavioral health emergency,” Holmes said.

She explained that the intent behind the 9-8-8 hotline is to be the behavioral health equivalent of 911.

“It will land at these call centers as opposed to with 911 but the call centers and the 911 dispatchers will work hand-in-hand. And will transfer calls back and forth as deemed appropriate,” Holmes said.

She said that the bid for Region 3’s call center went to Frontier Health and has been operational since December 2021.

“Right now, the law enforcement in the criminal justice system is the typical response individuals when an individual is at home or in the community and is experiencing some type of crisis. So the intent is to pull that off of law enforcement and get a behavioral health team that is trained to be able to respond to those situations,” she said.

A stakeholder group of roughly 55 people in Washington County put their heads together to identify needs in the community that should be addressed by the Marcus Alert response team.

Holmes explained that representation from the Department of Social Services, housing authorities, local law enforcement, state police, community college representatives, along with minorities and marginalized people contributed to the initiative.

“Part of the Marcus Alert element is looking at how do we make sure that we have training in place for those who are responding to be sure that we don’t overlook minority or marginalized individuals and either the needs that they bring to the table or the preconceived notions or conceptions that an individual who’s responding might have about a population looking at some of those educational needs,” she said.

But how does it work?

Once a call comes in, a clinician will join a specially trained Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy to co-respond to the scene.

“A call will come in and based on the guidelines that our locality has established it will either be handled by dispatch because there’s some level of threat or aggression or concern, and it will be determined that it was either an appropriate level for co-response team to be able to be sent out and at that moment, a designated officer that is hired to work with the Marcus Alter program, and designated clinician that team would go out and respond to that given call,” Holmes said.

Abingdon Police Chief Jon Holbrook told News Channel 11 that the decision was made for a WCSO deputy to join a certified mental health professional because the CSB falls into many jurisdictions, and the sheriff’s office oversees the entire county.

“This area is a little bit unique, though, when you get to this end of the state because we have a huge area and limited law enforcement and limited clinicians. So say, for example, in Virginia Beach, they could have a backup officer there in just a minute if the clinician needed anything here it would take a little bit longer. So the thought process was if you put the clinician with the officer, in this case, the deputy and they’d be able to respond quickly,” Holbrook said.

To experts like Holmes, it’s necessary to take the pressure of controlling mental health crises off of police shoulders.

“It’s a burden that has fallen on law enforcement for many, many years and has continued to grow. That doesn’t need to be there. They’re not trained on how to deal with that,” she said, adding that police have a fraction of the mental health training they should have to handle those situations.

“But at the end of the day, they’re trained on safety and protection and law enforcement. They’re not trained on behavioral health interventions. So it’s not fair to continue to put them in a situation that we expect them to respond as if they are behavioral health professionals and hold them accountable when they don’t when that’s not what they were ever intended to do,” Holmes said.

There is a sliding scale, a triage checklist that each locality has to establish to determine what level each situation would warrant what type of response through the Marcus Alert team.

“So we would contact them or the dispatch would contact them and if they were available, they would respond to that scene to bring that clinician as long as the scene is safe now we also take great consideration into making sure that it’s safe for that clinician because they’re not sworn law enforcement,” Holbrook said.

He said there are four general categories:

  1. Level 1: Routine
    Emergency dispatchers refers a distressed caller to the 988 call center for intervention, no law enforcement intervention necessary unless it is determined that it is appropriate for the Marcus Alert response team to check on the caller or situation in person.
  2. Level 2: Moderate
    A distressed caller needs immediate in-person intervention from a behavioral health professional. Suicidal thoughts may have been brought up but no plans to actually go through with it, and no homicidal comments.
  3. Level 3: Urgent
    Someone is causing harm to themselves or are acting in an aggressive manner towards others.
  4. Level 4: Emergent
    Example: an active shooting scene, or an direct attempt on someone’s life, whether it be suicidal or threatening homicide.

“Jail is the thing that we want to avoid. The additional piece that we want to avoid is unnecessary hospitalization. And we want to try and intervene early and give get the right supports and the right level of supports wrapped around the individual to try and prevent further escalation into any of those additional systems,” Holmes said.

Holbrook explained that when violence is threatened it might still be criminal, but that’s exactly why mental health experts are utilized to assess a situation and determine if a behavioral health crisis is at the heart of the violence.

Holmes explained that the General Assembly is considering making some adjustments to the current legislation, like considering an opt-out option for smaller localities who may be too small to implement the alert system, as well as looking at extending the implementation deadlines.

As it is, all CSBs in Virginia will be required to adopt the Marcus Alert program by July 1, 2026.

The nationwide 9-8-8 hotline is set to launch by July 1 of this year, and local authorities said that will help with Marcus Alerts in Virginia.