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Marcus Alert Clears House Committee

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Del. Jeff Bourne in 2018. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

The House Appropriations Committee approved a bill Friday to establish mental health crisis alerts statewide. The bill passed the committee by a vote of 21 to 1.

If passed into law, the Marcus-David Peters Act would require every locality in Virginia to establish a mental health crisis alert -- also known as a Marcus Alert -- by 2022. It requires local agencies to create community response teams, made up of police and mental health professionals.

“When someone is clearly in a mental health crisis or under the influence of drugs, the mental health service providers will take the lead in trying to deescalate that situation,” said Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond City), who proposed the bill.

The bill answers a key demand organizers issued after Marcus-David Peters was shot and killed by Richmond police in 2018 while undergoing a mental health crisis. Richmond approved its own Marcus Alert in July, and a plan for its implementation is expected by October.

Bourne’s bill faced virtually no opposition in the committee. Republican lawmakers initially expressed concerns for the safety of mental health professionals who may be endangered if a mental health crisis turned violent. Bourse said while mental health professionals would lead the response team, they wouldn’t necessarily be the ones entering the room first.

“If there is a high risk of loss of life or injury to other people or themselves, obviously those are going to be calls that are made as the situation unfolds,” Bourne said.

The single dissenting vote came from Del. Matt Fariss (R-Campbell).

According to the bill’s impact statement, it would cost each locality around $970,000 total per year to fund the salaries of the response teams’ mental health workers. It also recommends for around $200,000 to be used towards a public awareness campaign to advertise the alerts.

“The proposed legislation may result in the need for additional law enforcement officer staff,” the impact statement adds. “Additionally, officers who respond on community care teams may need separate training from what a typical trooper undergoes.”

The bill moves to the full floor of the House for a vote. If passed, it would then need to be approved by the Senate before it can be sent to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for his signature.

Other police reforms also advanced in the house today include bans on no-knock warrants and choke holds - with jail time for officers who use neck restraints. The two measures, which passed despite opposition, seek to prevent practices which enabled the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd earlier this summer. The proposals will have to clear the Senate before reaching the governor’s desk.

Yasmine Jumaa contributed to this report.