By Andrew Ringle
Capital News Service
A bill that could reshape how law enforcement responds when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis reported out of the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday by a vote of 13-9.
House Bill 5043, introduced by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would create teams of mental health service providers, peer recovery specialists and law enforcement to help individuals in a crisis situation. Formally dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or MARCUS, alert system, the proposal is in response to ongoing demands of protesters in Richmond.
The proposed system is named after Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer in 2018 while unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis.
“Out of that, his family, a wealth and host of community advocates and stakeholders came together and really started developing what’s known as the MARCUS alert system, which this bill hopefully will create,” Bourne said during the virtual committee meeting.
The bill would require the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and the Department of Criminal Justice Services to work together to create evidence-based training programs for the care teams so that they know how, Bourne said, “to effectively address, mitigate and de-escalate these situations.”
Bourne hopes the law will ensure that people who are experiencing mental health crises are met with the appropriate resources “and not just being locked up.”
“A mental health professional is going to absolutely take the lead in these situations,” Bourne said. “In lots of cases, the mere presence or sight of a uniform or police vehicle can further exacerbate or further amplify the mental health crisis.”
Princess Blanding, sister of Peters, commended Bourne and his team for spearheading the bill’s progress in the House. She called today’s committee meeting a partial victory, adding “it’s not done yet.”
“We’re very thankful for the work that Del. Jeff Bourne has been doing, and it’s not over,” Blanding said. “He knows he still has a lot of work ahead of him, and he’s up for it. He’s up for that fight.”
During the meeting, Blanding urged the delegates to support the bill and said her brother “absolutely deserved help, not death” on the day of his fatal shooting.
“When a person’s kidneys stop functioning properly, they receive dialysis if needed,” Blanding said. “When a person’s heart stops functioning properly, they receive bypass surgery if needed. But the brain is the only major organ that, when it stops functioning properly, we demonize, we incarcerate, and in the case of so many Black people, death is the final answer.”
Blanding has spoken at multiple demonstrations in Richmond since protests sparked by the death of George Floyd began in late May, demanding the city fully fund the alert system as well as establish a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.
Citing the personal experience of a family member, Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, expressed concern for situations when a victim is endangered by someone experiencing a mental health crisis. She said she supports Bourne’s bill “in concept” but struggles with it from a legal perspective regarding who would respond first in a situation when someone might be harmed.
Bourne said law enforcement have “an absolute, overarching duty to protect people,” and that protection of any victims would necessitate police to respond first, but the mental health team would also be there to address the crisis. Coyner ultimately voted against the bill.
Republican delegates expressed concern over how to fund a statewide system, which will be determined when the bill is before the House Appropriations Committee.
“I’d like for us to think about what we could do to spend this money within our police departments to have somebody there with them that has the ability to be plainclothed and to do this, versus trying to organize different people from different parts,” said Del. Matt Fariss, R-Rustburg.
Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, spoke during the committee meeting. He said although his organization was not involved with putting forward the legislation, he “fully supports” the goals listed in the bill.
“I think this is an incredible, significant step forward in really addressing the mental health needs of our community,” Cruser said.
Senate Bill 5038, introduced by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, also seeks to establish a similar alert system. It has been rereferred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations committee.