CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard has publicly criticized the state of mental health systems in his county and the nation.
In a statement released Wednesday morning — entitled “FROM CRISIS TO CRIMINAL: A BROKEN MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM” — Leonard laid out his issues with mental health systems and the undue pressure placed upon law enforcement.
In March 2022, Chesterfield County Police Chief Jeffrey Katz made a similar statement, accompanied by a photo of law enforcement vehicles — each occupied by someone experiencing a mental health crisis — waiting in line at Chippenham Hospital for a bed.
“Twenty months later, not much has changed and the number one issue facing this nation and this Commonwealth is still our mental health crisis and, on both fronts, we are failing,” Leonard said in his statement. “The criminal incarceration of those in mental crisis is abominable and unjust, yet it is the standard practice, not by choice, but by default.”
Leonard’s statement claims that without community-based treatment facilities, mentally ill individuals are being sent to local jails instead.
“Certainly, the way we addressed mental health in 1980 was different than today and we did not know as much about it or treatment options as we do today,” Leonard’s statement reads. “So why are we still using local jails as the dumping grounds for those in critical need of mental health help?”
According to Leonard, an estimated 70% of Chesterfield’s inmate population is composed of people with mental health issues. Additionally, he claims nearly 30% of the county’s inmates have serious mental illnesses.
“While we do our best to help [those] in need, we are not properly equipped, staffed, trained, or funded to be a mental institution,” Leonard said. “And housing them in a jail is not the best course of action for them and only serves to exasperate an already tenuous situation… This needs to change, and it needs to change quick.”
Leonard explained that, according to the Code of Virginia, a Temporary Detention Order (TDO) must be issued when there is a substantial likelihood that someone with a mental illness may cause harm to themself or others.
“Also by law, a TDO is only good for 72 hours from the time it is issued and in most cases we are unable to find proper bed space for them during that time,” Leonard said. “If after the 72-hour lifespan of a TDO we cannot find a bed our only recourse then is to simply release the individual who in mental crisis back onto the streets. This is a travesty to that individual and his/her family.”
In the closing paragraphs of Leonard’s statement, he explains two separate mental health incidents that deputies responded to on Friday, Oct. 27. In both cases the individuals were still in the care of the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office but no beds had been found for them.
“One was using his own human waste to write messages on the wall,” Leonard said. “Our deputies did their best to comfort him and care for him, but this is beyond their scope of training and expertise… Although we are getting much better at this, as we must now become the crisis experts.”
According to Leonard, the second person was more subdued, but still in need of critical care for his mental illness.
“In addition to his mental state, he has refused to eat his last 10 meals or to drink anything. Not because he was angry, not out of protest, but only because he cannot comprehend the need to eat,” Leonard said. “And now, a new second TDO was issued for him, and right now we have two deputies sitting with him still, for another 72 hours, until a bed can be found when he should have been in a proper facility last Friday.”
Leonard’s full statement can be read on his official Facebook page.