One in 10 Virginians charged with police assaults have a history of mental illness

Researchers say state assault and battery laws have an outsized impact on people undergoing crisis

By: - June 14, 2022 7:28 pm

A police car in Richmond, Va. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Around 10 percent of people charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer in Virginia over a nearly decade-long period had a history of mental illness, according to data from University of Virginia researchers presented Tuesday to the state’s Behavioral Health Commission.

Altogether, between 2009 and 2018, a total of 2,213 people with a history of mental illness were later charged with assault against law enforcement. Those individuals spent an average of 94.8 days in jail, longer than the 79-day average for subjects without a background of civil commitment.

Experts say those numbers almost certainly undercount such situations, given that the study only captured people with a record of being issued an emergency custody or temporary detention order — two types of civil commitments typically issued in crisis situations.

But currently, the data offer one of the only ways of assessing how frequently mental health plays a role in what are often non-serious assaults on police and other law enforcement officials, said Heather Zelle, the associate director of mental health policy research for UVA’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry, & Public Policy.

“The hope is that it gives a sense of why we might want to consider policy changes,” she said after the meeting. “We wanted to get a read on the prevalence and highlight that this is affecting plenty of people, even in cases where those charges aren’t necessarily appropriate.”

It’s not the first time experts have raised concerns with Virginia’s laws involving attacks on law enforcement.

Zelle said her team began collecting the data after clinicians on staff noticed a growing number of patients charged with felonies despite having no prior criminal history. In some cases, police were called for a welfare check but ended up arresting the individual for assault or battery against an officer.

In Virginia, those charges can apply even in minor incidents with no serious injuries.

Anna Mendez, executive director of the Charlottesville-based nonprofit Partner for Mental Health, said her local commonwealth’s attorney listed spitting as one of the primary offenses in many of the office’s cases involving assault and battery against law enforcement. In another case, first filed in late 2013, a young Hispanic woman with a history of mental illness was charged with felony assault for throwing an onion ring at police officers in a Northern Virginia restaurant.

The latter case became a call to arms for some Democratic legislators pushing to de-felonize the crime of assault against a law enforcement officer — a conviction that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of six months in jail.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, unsuccessfully filed legislation to eliminate the offense as an automatic felony in 2020 and 2021, saying the law disproportionately affected Virginians with mental illness. During the latest General Assembly session, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, sponsored a related bill that would have prohibited officers from filing assault and battery charges against individuals going through a mental health crisis if those officers were responding to a call for service.

A House committee killed Bourne’s legislation, but advocates are still calling for a change to Virginia’s laws. 

“We’re not saying these charges can’t ever be used, but we’re really trying to prevent these cases where everyone sits down and kind of realizes, ‘Hey, this is wrong,’ Zelle said.

Mendez also pointed out that felony convictions can have a devastating impact on the stability of individuals with mental illness long after they’re released from incarceration.

“All of a sudden, you can’t find housing, you can’t get employment,” she said. “And those are two of the most crucial things for someone achieving long-term mental health and wellness.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.

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