Police in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Renewed efforts are underway by Democrats to halt arrests of individuals who are accused of assaulting a police officer if they are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
A new bill filed last week by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would end the practice of arresting and prosecuting an individual for assaulting a law enforcement officer if that individual is determined to have been “experiencing a mental health emergency” at the time of the assault.
The proposal is a follow-up to Bourne’s legislation from last year addressing the same issue, as well as similar bills from other lawmakers. Despite the attention, those bills all died in committee, with both Republicans and Democrats voting against moving forward with them. The reasons ranged from concerns about endangering police officers to the need for more specific definitions for certain terms.
An identical bill from Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, will be withdrawn in favor of Bourne’s, the long-time lawmaker confirmed.
In recent years, Virginia has seen a number of highly publicized instances where a seemingly minor act against law enforcement — like the throwing of an onion ring — has resulted in a felony assault charge, which carries a mandatory six-month jail sentence.
This can be particularly punitive for those who are going through a mental health crisis.
Bourne said when a flailing arm or inadvertent contact with law enforcement occurs, it’s important to understand the intent and how a mental health crisis might present itself.
“It’s not the intent to assault a law enforcement officer. It’s just a manifestation of a mental health crisis,” he said. “I think we ought to look at those situations with some grace and mercy and really focus on getting the people in crisis the help, support and resources that they need.”
Bourne also said he hoped the bill could “work in concert” with the Marcus-David Peters Act, his 2020 legislation named after a Black biology teacher in Richmond who was killed by police while in the midst of a mental health crisis. That law established an alert system that triggers a coordinated response between crisis centers, mental health care professionals and law enforcement that dispatches appropriate staff to help manage whatever the situation might be.
That could mean a social worker or a trained health professional going out on a call with police officers.
“It’s about getting [the individual going through crisis] whatever support and resources they need,” Bourne said of both measures. “It’s about making sure that’s the focus, rather than criminally charging them for something because of their mental illness they have no real control over.”
Last year, though, legislation passed that allowed localities to opt out of the alert system if they have a population below 40,000 residents.
A University of Virginia study presented to the state’s Behavioral Health Commission last year showed that about 10% of those charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer in Virginia between 2009 and 2018 had a history of mental illness. The most recent crime report from Virginia State Police found that number was slightly lower in 2021, at about 8%.
The same report also found a majority of assaults on law enforcement do not result in injury. Of 1,787 charged assaults on VSP officers in 2021, 1,202 — or more than two-thirds — did not result in injury.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, says those figures back up his argument that “it’s often people who are suffering from a mental health crisis or have an intellectual disability that are bearing the brunt of this statute.”
He previously carried legislation to reduce the punishment for assaulting a law enforcement officer and at the time said he heard from advocates that “this statute felonized disability.”
But not everyone agrees with halting arrests of this nature. Spokespeople from the Virginia Police Benevolent Association and the Virginia State Police Association, which represent thousands of law enforcement officers across the commonwealth, told the Virginia Mercury they oppose bills like those filed by Bourne.
Virginia State Police Association Executive Director Bill Carrico said police go through a lot of training to identify and de-escalate mental health emergency situations t, and charging an individual with assault is often the last option.
“Once [violence] occurs, there have to be consequences,” said Carrico, a former state senator. “You are giving a lot of leeway to individuals to claim that they have a mental health emergency and use it as an excuse. It’s hard enough to recruit [police officers] as is without people giving a pass.”
How do you define ‘mental health’? How do you define ‘crisis’? ... We need to be far more specific about exactly what we’re talking about.
– Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax
There’s also the question of how to define a “mental health emergency” or “crisis.” Watts, a member of the House Courts of Justice Committee that’s scheduled to take up Bourne’s bill, said there’s a need for more exact definitions of both terms so that officers know what their rights and responsibilities are when faced with particular scenarios.
“How do you define ‘mental health’? How do you define ‘crisis’? Just simply using the words are not clear and does not provide enough clarity for what the law enforcement officer feel [their] authority or responsibility might be on the street. We need to be far more specific about exactly what we’re talking about,” Watts said. “And that’s not easy to do.”
Watts said if the concerns raised about definitions are addressed, she could see Bourne’s bill passing. Surovell noted that there is a habit of framing bills of this nature as “anti-police,” but if that can be avoided, he said there’s hope.
While Bourne acknowledged that a Republican-controlled House of Delegates and governor’s mansion makes passage much more difficult, he said he believes there’s interest from across the aisle to pass legislation that protects vulnerable people going through a mental health crisis as well as providing tools to law enforcement to guide them in a difficult situation.
“Tackling these issues is not an easy task. Not just because of the political dynamics, but because these issues are…complex,” he said. “Do I think it’s a slam dunk and a foregone conclusion that it’s going to pass? No. But if we work hard and everybody comes to it in good faith, can we get something that everyone can be proud of and can dramatically improve lives in Virginia? Yeah. That may be naive of me, but I believe that.”
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