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

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Chesterfield County’s Police Chief is bringing attention back to the mental health system and how it’s impacting the police force.

Jeffery Katz, Chesterfield County’s Police Chief, posted a picture on Facebook of a long line of law enforcement vehicles outside of Chippenham Hospital Thursday night. All of the cars had officers transporting mental health patients to healthcare professionals. Katz said that some of the patients were children.

He said sometimes it takes officers 10 hours to transfer patients out of their custody to the mental healthcare providers’.

The post read: “Our mental health system, staffed by many wonderful people, is so fundamentally broken that it does a better job keeping police officers off the streets than providing timely care to people in crisis.”

Julian Walker, a spokesperson for the Virginia Hospital Healthcare Association, said the demand for mental health treatment spiked at the height of the pandemic and has continued to rise.

“The state-run adult psychiatric facilities had to halt admissions of new patients because they were having a capacity crunch and a staffing challenge,” he said. “That of course also impacts private hospitals and creates a ripple effect for other public safety entities.”

Katz said the ripple effect can impact social services and law enforcement officers too.

Prince George County Police Chief, 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.

“Oftentimes, people who are experiencing mental health crises, sometimes their first contact with the system is through a law enforcement officer,” said Walker.

According to Walker, the major staffing and overcrowding issues at Virginia’s mental health facilities existed prior to 2020 and 2021, but the pandemic intensified them.

“There’s been an outcry from a multitude of stakeholders who are continued investments in the system, for continued efforts to reform the system, so that we can get the patients the right care in the appropriate setting at the right time,” he said.

This year’s budget legislation related to mental health funding is waiting to be reviewed by the General Assembly.

“Right now, it still invests a significant share of the available resources in the state-run system,” said Walker.

The legislation proposed millions of dollars for state-run mental health facilities and the mental health workforce.

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