Virginia rolls out new fleet to take mentally ill to psychiatric hospitals

One of what will eventually be a fleet of 12 specially outfitted SUVs that will be used to transport subjects of involuntary mental health detentions to psychiatric hospitals around the state.

State officials got their first look Monday at a fleet of modern new SUVs that will begin to replace the police cars that currently transport subjects of involuntary mental health detentions to psychiatric hospitals around the state.

The new program has two aims: To lessen the burden on local police departments, whose officers can be tied up for hours at a time transporting patients, sometimes hundreds of miles to the nearest treatment center with an open bed. And to reduce trauma on patients who, in most cases have not committed a crime but nonetheless find themselves in the back of a police car — sometimes handcuffed — despite not having committed a crime.

“The transportation can give people dignity,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath. “You shouldn’t have to be handcuffed just because you’re sick, just because you’re in crisis.”

The unmarked vehicles are specially designed to reduce the stigma that might accompany being loaded into a police car, officials said. They expect them to replace police cars for about half of transports.

Officials said the vehicles, shown to lawmakers at the Capitol on Monday, can safely transport up to two patients without the use of handcuffs or other restraints beyond a standard seat belt.

Six vehicles will go into service early next month in Southwest Virginia, where patients can face the longest drives to mental health facilities. The program will roll out statewide with a total of 12 vehicles by 2021.

Officials announced the plan in May, as Mercury reporter Katie O’Connor reported:

The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services announced Tuesday that it awarded a $7 million, two-year contract to G4S, a security company that operates in 90 countries, to implement new transportation services for people under a temporary detention order.

The company will use “unarmed, specially trained drivers in secure, unmarked vehicles,” to transport the individuals, a DBHDS press release states. The new alternative transportation program will start in the summer, and the state estimates that G4S will transport 50 percent of all TDOs in Virginia during its contract, which has an option for extension.

In the 2018 fiscal year, more than 25,000 TDOs were issued in Virginia, “and it is estimated that law enforcement transported 99 percent of these individuals,” the release states.

“Ideally we would like for as many people as possible to be transported in a way that supports their dignity and hopefully their engagement in treatment,” Daniel Herr, deputy commissioner for facility services with DBHDS, said in an interview last month. “We will just see, over time, how that works and whether we’re able to actually transport more folks than we originally estimated.”

Law enforcement officers will still need to transport individuals who do not meet criteria for alternative transportation, though, such as if there is a safety concern.