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Richmond implements Marcus Alert system for mental health emergencies

Perople hold signs
Protesters outside of Richmond City Hall call for the implementation of a Marcus Alert system. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond implemented its version of the Marcus Alert system Wednesday, becoming one of five Virginia regions to do so.

  • Region 1: Orange, Madison, Culpeper, Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties (Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services)
  • Region 2: Prince William County (Prince William County Community Services)
  • Region 3: City of Bristol and Washington County including the Towns of Abingdon, Damascus, and Glade Spring (Highlands CSB)
  • Region 4: City of Richmond (Richmond Behavioral Health Authority)
  • Region 5: City of Virginia Beach (Virginia Beach Human Services)

The new program is named after Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old Black man killed by Richmond police during a mental health crisis in 2018. That event was a focus of protests during the summer of 2020, and led to calls for reform in handling behavioral health crises.

The statewide framework was approved by lawmakers during the 2020 special session. It attempts to help local and regional emergency call centers coordinate with first responders and behavioral health teams to respond quickly in mental health emergencies.

John Lindstrom is the director of the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, the community service board responsible for implementing Richmond’s Marcus Alert. They worked with Richmond Police, the Human Services Portfolio, City Council, the Department of Emergency Communications and community stakeholders. Lindstrom says the state framework, plus the city’s additions, will save lives.

“We want the community to feel more confident that calling for mental health help won’t result in some bad outcome involving police or other safety issues,” Lindstrom said.

Low-risk 911 calls - for instance, someone reporting suicidal thoughts with no intention to act on them - will be transferred to a regional center to dispatch a behavioral health team or provide help over the phone.

But police are still involved. Lindstrom says it’s necessary — police are able to respond more quickly in life-threatening emergencies. Those situations would not be handed off to a regional call center but still require that behavioral health professionals be involved as quickly as possible.

Graphic explaining Marcus Alert protocols
The triage system for local Marcus Alert programs.

Activists say that goes against what they initially hoped the program would do.

The system even came under fire during the law’s ceremonial signing at the Executive Mansion. Princess Blanding, Peters’ sister and a 2021 candidate for governor, told lawmakers that the system had been watered down and demanded they “fix it.” She criticized the law’s long implementation period; it won’t be required statewide until 2026.

“That’s a lot of people being incarcerated for having a mental health crisis, and that’s a lot of people being brutalized throughout that long time. There’s no justifiable reason for it,” Blanding said last year.

Although Dec. 1 is the official first day of the Marcus Alert in Richmond, Lindstrom says it’s something of a “soft” launch. The five regional programs are officially active but also function like a trial run for the whole state, and they’ll continue to adopt new strategies and partners.

“We hope to have a much more robust crisis response network developed in the end,” Lindstrom said, noting that adding new mobile response workers will take time.

One change that could help: the national suicide prevention hotline will start using the number 988 next summer for mental health emergencies. Virginians will be able to call that number to get directly connected to the Marcus Alert system. The current number is 1-800-273-TALK(8255).

“I’m very hopeful that as we change public knowledge and culture, that the public will understand that they have resources other than calling 911 for a behavioral health concern that’s not immediately life threatening,” Lindstrom said.

Lindstrom told VPM that Richmond’s plan is not available but has been submitted to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services for review.

The city is also encouraging residents to upload a private health profile that includes pre-existing conditions, mental health issues, allergies, developmental disabilities and their phone number. First responders get access to any profile connected to a number that places an emergency call, quickly giving them valuable health information.