Rethinking the Relationship between Mental Health and Police In Fairfax County
By: Michael Pope
August 25, 2015
Leaders in Fairfax County may be on the verge of taking a different approach to mental illness, especially how law enforcement confronts those with mental illness. That's an issue that has raised alarms after two recent deaths, one at the hands of a police officer and another at the hands of sheriff's deputies.
"Police officers have increasingly become the first responders when a citizen is in the midst of a psychiatric crisis," says a report crafted by the Mental Health Subcommittee of the Ad Hoc Police Police Practices Commission (pdf). "Despite the minor nature of these crimes, encounters between persons with mental illness and the police can escalate, sometimes with tragic consequences."
Such was the case in two recent high profile cases. One was in 2010, when David Masters was shot and killed on Richmond Highway. Police kept the name of the officer secret for months, and they concealed the dashboard video footage secret for years. As it turns out, Masters suffered from mental illness and the confrontation was prompted to a suspicion that he stole flowers from a nearby business.
More recently, five deputy sheriffs at the Fairfax County jail hit Natasha McKenna, a woman suffering from schizophrenia, multiple times with a Taser stun gun, leading to her death. She was handcuffed at the time, prompting to harsh criticism of the sheriff's office.
Number and diagnoses of inmates with mental illness in Virginia. (Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services)
"There are a number of jurisdictions nationally and even here in Virginia that already do this very well, in fact do it better than Fairfax County does," says Del. Marcus Simon (D-53), chairman of the subcommittee. "We want to encourage the county to not view this as simply a police problem and a police training problem but to try and figure out if there's a better way to deal with them than simply warehousing them in the county jail."
Ever since the institutions that once housed people with mental illness shut down decades ago, jails across the country have become de facto psychiatric facilities. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 40 percent of adults who experience serious mental illness will come into contact with the police and the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. And nearly half of all fatal shootings by law enforcement locally and nationally involve persons with mental illnesses.
According to Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, about half of all Fairfax County inmates have mental health and/or co-occurring substance abuse disorders.
"There are people who are charged with minor crimes like trespass and being a nuisance who are wandering the streets or get into trouble because of mental illness," says Pete Earley, an author who has written about the subject of mental illness. "These are not hardcore criminals, and they deserve and need to get into treatment, not punished."
One is the creation of crisis assessment sites, which would receive those who would otherwise end up in the jail. Another recommendation calls for additional mobile units that can provide on-site evaluation, treatment and crisis intervention. Yet another key recommendations is the creation of a new docket at the county court, which would allow judges who have received specialized training to consider cases involving mental health concerns outside of the normal crush of business.
These are all best practices that the subcommittee learned are commonplace in many parts of the country but not happening in Fairfax County, where the Sheriff's Office has the lowest level training for mental illness in Northern Virginia.
"Fairfax County was behind for a variety of reasons, one was a lack of leadership," says Earley. "You had people in the judiciary who were strongly opposed to mental-health dockets or getting involved. You had people in the police department who saw this as kind of a hug-a-thug program."