New vehicles used to transport individuals under temporary detention orders to mental health treatment facilities look like the average vehicle on the outside. The unmarked Dodge SUVs give no indication who is inside and where they are headed, and that’s part of the appeal.

Until the alternative transport program was rolled out Monday, those patients were hauled away to a hospital in the back of a police car, sometimes in handcuffs—a practice believed to be traumatic to patients and burdensome to local law enforcement.

“Not only will this help alleviate the burden on law enforcement, but alternative transportation will help provide privacy and dignity for individuals under temporary detention orders,” said Cynthia McClaskey, director of Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute.

McClaskey and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam spoke to a small crowd gathered at the entrance of SWVMHI, where one of the new vehicles was on display.

 “These individuals were being transported by our law enforcement agents and they’re doing a wonderful job of doing that, but that’s perhaps not the best way to transport individuals for a couple of reasons,” Northam said.

He pointed out that local law enforcement have enough work on their plates as it is and when they’re out doing a transport, it takes them away from their assigned work. He said the move was also about treating people the way they should be treated.

“Individuals who have behavioral health issues shouldn’t be put in a car, handcuffed in a marked police car,” he said. “We can do better than that and that’s why we’re here.”

While the outside of the alternative transport vehicles is rather inconspicuous, the inside is designed with security in mind. Plexiglas partitions separate the front and back seats, as well as divide the backseat down the middle to allow for two simultaneous transports. Seatbelts that latch near the door decrease risks that may arise from reaching over an agitated patient and plastic seats are more hygienic. Incognito camera systems also help the driver monitor patients while they are in transport.

The drivers themselves are trained as unarmed security guards through the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. Part of that training includes de-escalation and crisis prevention and intervention.

The general assembly approved the three-year $7 million contract with private company G4S earlier this year. With six vehicles to serve the state, Marion will be the southernmost hub.

The new program is meant to alleviate part of the burden on local law enforcement agencies by taking on about half of the transports in the alternative vehicles. 

“I think it’s going to be a positive boost for us local law enforcement officers,” said Chief Deputy Johnny Joannou with the Smyth County Sheriff’s Office.

The launch of the program in Marion was no accident, McClaskey noted. The new program builds on the success of a pilot program conducted by Mount Rogers Community Services in 2016.

Smyth deputies are frequently called out on TDO transports, Joannou said. During the pilot program, the Sheriff’s Office took advantage whenever they could.

“I think it’s going to help us cut down on the number of transports our officers are going to have to take,” Joannou said.  “We’re encouraged by it. We’re hoping it’s going to be a real positive thing for Southwest Virginia.”

During the  pilot program, alternative transportation provided an average of 40 percent of the TDO transports in the counties served. In Wytheville, it took on about 50 percent, said Wytheville Police Chief Rick Arnold, who attended the rollout in Marion.

The Wytheville Police Department averages 150 to 160 transports a year.  Some transports require five to six hours in travel time one way, Arnold said, and when intake time is factored in, trips can take two shifts to complete, requiring two officers to be pulled from their police work.

Arnold also noted that if a patient needs transported from one facility to another, the burden again falls to local law enforcement.

“So the alternative transportation is going to be a big boon to us just by keeping officers in the communities, where they belong,” Arnold said.

Marion Police Chief John Clair is also optimistic about the program.  He believes it’s a step in the right direction in addressing the region’s mental health needs.

“They anticipate a 50 percent reduction,” he said. “I welcome that. I hope we then take the time to really consider the legislation and the law itself and how we have responded to that.”

In 2018, Marion officers transported 108 patients to treatment facilities. Only eight of those transports went to the Marion facility.

“Part of the transportation dilemma is that we have to deliver these folks all over the commonwealth,” Clair said.

Not only does that take officers away from their assignments, but it also frequently takes them out of their jurisdictions.

“As soon as I leave my jurisdiction, I don’t have the same authority, but I still have a person in my custody whom I am responsible for.”

When officers are called out on mental health transports, it’s also up to the individual department to foot the bill for the man hours, fuel and wear and tear to patrol vehicles.

“This will be a tremendous savings for law enforcement,” said John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association.

The association was a large supporter of the move and has pushed legislators for years to address the issue.

In addition to the new vehicles, Arnold said there’s also been talk of creating drop off points, where patients can be taken for evaluation and then transported by the new vehicles. Larger areas like Richmond, Fairfax and Virginia Beach already have those, he noted

“Those two things are going to be a good shot for us,” Arnold said.

The program will be rolled out one region at a time, with the Region Three District of Virginia, which includes Southwest Virginia, kicking off the rollout.

McClaskey said the rollout was but one element of a new era of innovative behavioral health.

“We know that a more trauma-informed and person-centered approach to transports supports individual engagement and treatment, which helps boost positive outcomes,” she said. “It also serves to reduce the stigma for those who need an in-patient level of care.”

Northam said that while a tremendous amount of work lay ahead in addressing the mental health needs of the commonwealth, Monday’s rollout was big step in the right direction.


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