Local police chiefs renew calls to change Virginia’s mental health system

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) – The Chesterfield County Police Commissioner is turning attention back to the mental health system and how it affects the police force.

Chesterfield County Police Chief Jeffery Katz posted a picture of a long line of police vehicles outside Chippenham Hospital on Facebook on Thursday night. All cars had officers who transported mentally ill patients to medical professionals. Katz said some of the patients were children.

He said it sometimes takes officers 10 hours to get patients from their care to mental health providers.

The post read: “Our psychiatric system, staffed by many wonderful people, is so fundamentally broken that keeping cops off the streets is better than providing timely care to people in crisis.”

Julian Walker, a spokesman for the Virginia Hospital Healthcare Association, said demand for mental health treatments rose and continued to rise at the height of the pandemic.

“The state’s adult mental health facilities had to stop admitting new patients because of a capacity shortage and a staffing challenge,” he said. “Of course, this also affects private hospitals and creates a domino effect for other public safety institutions.”

Katz said the ripple effect could also impact social services and law enforcement officials.

Prince George County Police Commissioner Keith Early chimed in on Katz’s social media post, saying his officers spent about 525 hours responding to mental health-related calls in 2021.

“Often, people experiencing mental health crises sometimes have their first exposure to the system through a law enforcement officer,” Walker said.

According to Walker, the biggest staffing and overcrowding problems at Virginia mental health facilities existed before 2020 and 2021, but the pandemic has exacerbated them.

“There has been an outcry from a variety of stakeholders, who continue to invest in the system, for continued efforts to reform the system so we can provide patients with the right care in the right environment at the right time,” he said.

This year’s mental health funding budget legislation is awaiting review by the General Assembly.

“Right now, it’s still investing a significant portion of available resources in the state system,” Walker said.

The legislation earmarked millions of dollars for state mental health facilities and mental health workers.

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