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Marcus-David Peters Act begins to take shape locally

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Randi B. Hagi
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In 2020, racial justice activists erected a sign commemorating Marcus-David Peters at the site of the now-defunct Lee monument.

Some behavioral health and law enforcement agencies around Virginia have begun to implement the Marcus-David Peters Act. Please note that this story does include mentions of mental health crises, death, and suicide. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation known as the Marcus-David Peters Act in late 2020. It was named in honor of a Black high school teacher from Richmond who was killed by law enforcement in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis.

Broadly speaking, the purpose of the law is –

ALEXANDRIA ROBINSON-JONES: To make sure that there's a behavioral health response to a behavioral health situation.

Alexandria Robinson-Jones is the Marcus Alert program coordinator for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, or DBHDS.

After the law was passed, DBHDS and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services were tasked with assembling a stakeholder group to decide how to implement the law's directives.

ROBINSON-JONES: It required a blend of law enforcement, crisis intervention teams, behavioral health folks, disability justice, brain injury advocates, substance use advocates.

They published their implementation plan last summer. One component of the plan dictates that if someone calls 911 about a behavioral health crisis, it needs to be flagged as a Marcus Alert-type call, and transferred to 988 regional crisis call centers.

988 is the nationwide, three-digit number that connects you to a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or other behavioral health crisis center. It's like 911's mental health counterpart, and it goes live in Virginia and the rest of the U.S. on July 16th.

ROBINSON-JONES: From there, the call can either be deescalated over the phone, maybe get connected to some services, or if needed, if it's maybe a higher level of urgency for that call, that's when they might dispatch a co-response team that would be behavioral health and law enforcement.

The alert system outlines four levels of acuity. Level one would be a distressed caller who needs a referral to services within 72 hours, but is not at risk of harming themselves or others. A level four call would be someone actively attempting suicide or assaulting others with the ability to cause significant harm – that's a scenario in which law enforcement or other first responders would still be dispatched immediately.

Bill Howard, the department's director of crisis supports and services, said that based on what we've seen with existent crisis lines –

BILL HOWARD: The national average has that over 80% of the time, that there is a linkage to a service or just general de-escalation.

The Marcus Alert system is being tested in five pilot programs based in Richmond, Virginia Beach, Prince William County, Abingdon, and Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services – the public mental health agency that services Warrenton, Culpeper, and the counties of Culpeper, Madison, Fauquier, and Rappahannock.

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Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services
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Jim LaGraffe is the executive director of the CSB based in Culpeper.

JIM LAGRAFFE: You know, we have to do better as a system. Virginia does not rate highly nationally in behavioral health outcomes.

Jim LaGraffe is the agency's executive director. He said they actually started working on alternative pathways for 911 callers in mental health crises several months before they became a Marcus Alert pilot site. It all started with a call from the current Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security – Bob Mosier. He used to be the sheriff of Fauquier County.

LAGRAFFE: When he was sheriff, he actually called me one day and said, "we were called to respond to a gentleman in our community who was in a crisis. And when we pulled up in our patrol car, the gentleman saw the patrol car, and unfortunately, it escalated to where he ran into the home … and unfortunately ended his life." ... He was convinced that if someone else was able to go there – if it wasn't a law enforcement vehicle – it might have had a very different outcome.

They started a co-responder program with two counselors who would accompany law enforcement on behavioral health calls. With the Marcus Alert funding, they've been able to expand that to five full-time staff – two in Culpeper, two in Fauquier, and one who bounces around the more rural counties in their service area.

Another innovation they've been able to tie into the Marcus Alert pilot is the SEE Center in downtown Culpeper – SEE stands for support, empower, encourage. It's a recovery site for people who need help, but aren't at the level of an emergency custody order – in other words, being taken to the emergency room for evaluation. The person in distress can voluntarily choose to have law enforcement drop them off at the center, where –

LAGRAFFE: A peer would meet with somebody. They'd help them transition out of their crisis, or near-crisis at that point, maybe engage in a group, or talk to a counselor … We have therapeutic rooms where people can go and just relax and meditate, or get out of their environment. We have a shower facility, so if they need to be cleaned up.

The SEE Center opened last August, and in 2022 so far they've had about 4,000 visitors. LaGraffe stressed the importance of having peer support staff – people who aren't clinicians, but help community members find, maintain, and strengthen their path of recovery by drawing on their own experiences with recovery from substance use or mental health challenges.

LAGRAFFE: You can't underestimate the importance of lived experience … because of that relationship that the peers can make – we get people to come back.

He said they started out with one peer staffer – now, they have 26.

If you are thinking about suicide, are experiencing emotional distress, or are worried about a loved one, please tell someone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK, or 1-800-273-8255, and you can chat with them online.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.