RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Virginia’s first Marcus Alert systems launched on Wednesday in five regions, including the cities of Richmond, Virginia Beach and Bristol.

Governor Ralph Northam signed the Marcus-David Peters Act last year after the General Assembly passed a slew of police reforms. The law aims to reform the response to mental health crisis calls and reduce the role of law enforcement when possible.

The first phase of implementation comes nearly three and a half years after Marcus-David Peters was fatally shot by Richmond Police. Peters charged an officer in the midst of a behavioral health crisis.

Related coverage: Mental health workforce shortages could hinder Marcus Alert roll out, community providers say

All community services boards (CSBs) will be required to adopt a series of Marcus Alert protocols outlined in the law by July 1, 2026.

The roll out kicked off on Dec. 1, 2021 as five regions launched pilot programs. Those regions include:

  • Region 1: Orange, Madison, Culpeper, Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties
  • Region 2: Prince William County
  • Region 3: City of Bristol and Washington County, including the Towns of Abingdon, Damascus, and Glade Spring
  • Region 4: City of Richmond
  • Region 5: City of Virginia Beach

“The biggest change is in an emergency they’re able to have a behavioral health response and it’s not limited to the previous law enforcement response if you were to call 911,” said Alexandria Robinson, one of two program coordinators for the Marcus Alert system.

Robinson said the new process will start with a safety assessment after which calls with lower threat levels may be referred to regional crisis call centers or the 9-8-8 suicide hotline once that number launches in July 2022.

Another protocol requires police departments to enter into agreements with mental health mobile crisis teams. Robinson said behavioral health professionals may respond alone or with law enforcement back up depending on the severity of the situation.

Under the framework, law enforcement agencies must also develop a specialized response to behavioral health emergencies governed by guidelines that emphasize minimizing the use of force, according to Robinson.

Robinson said advanced training for those involved in the Marcus Alert is still being developed. It’s currently expected to be ready by late summer of 2022.

Implementation of the pilot programs comes as Virginia and the nation are grappling with a critical shortage of mental health providers.

Asked if the state has enough behavioral health professionals to achieve comprehensive coverage, Heather Norton, assistant commissioner at the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said, “I think you’re accurate in saying that we’re in the process of building that capacity, that we do not have sufficient staff. I think we’re going to let the data inform us as we continue to move forward. That will give us a better understanding of what we have versus what we need.”

Princess Blanding, the sister of Marcus David Peters who recently lost a bid for governor, said lawmakers watered down the law.

Blanding said the General Assembly should amend the bill to prevent police in uniform from responding in marked vehicles with sirens, factors she said may be triggering for those in crisis. She said safeguards also need to be added to ensure consistency across localities and accountability for police who use excessive force.

“It doesn’t have all the components that it needs in order for it to be the life-saving Marcus Alert that we fought so hard for,” Blanding said. “It does not ensure that community members get help, not death.”

The Marcus Alert is part of a broader effort to transform the behavioral health system in Virginia by putting more focus on a continuum of crisis intervention and community care.

As of Dec. 1, 2021, Virginia Medicaid members have access to six new behavioral health services that strengthen crisis response, address a national emergency in children’s mental health care and provide new supports for individuals with developmental disabilities, according to DBHDS.

The new services covered by Medicaid are:

  • Multisystemic Therapy: Intensive family and community-based treatment for youth ages 11-18 with significant disruptive behaviors and substance use disorders.
  • Functional Family Therapy:  Short-term treatment for youth ages 11-18 with significant disruptive behaviors who have received referrals from juvenile justice, behavioral health, school or child welfare systems.
  • Mobile Crisis Response: 24/7 rapid response, assessment and early intervention for individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis.
  • Community Stabilization: Short-term support for individuals who recently required crisis services or who need assistance to avoid escalation to more intensive treatment models.
  • 23-Hour Crisis Stabilization: Up to 23 hours of crisis stabilization services in a community-based setting for individuals experiencing an acute behavioral health emergency.
  • Residential Crisis Stabilization Unit: Short-term, 24/7 residential evaluation and intervention for psychiatric and substance use crises. This new service enables some individuals to avoid inpatient admission and offers stepdown support for others who require hospitalization.

To learn more about the city of Richmond’s Marcus Alert plan, click here.