Prince William Co. expands 911 program to defuse mental health crises

A program to safely defuse 911 calls for people in mental health crises is expanding in Prince William County, Virginia.

The county became one of five Virginia jurisdictions involved in the Marcus Alert system when it launched in December 2021. It is named for Marcus-David Peters, a Richmond man in the midst of a mental health crisis, when he was fatally shot by police in 2018.

In 2021, the Prince William County Police Department began its partnership with George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (CEBCP). Depending on the situation described in a 911 call, a mental health clinician would ride to the scene with a police officer who has received crisis intervention training, or CIT.

In its first year, approximately one-third of county officers received CIT training. Now, with new federal funding, all patrol officers will receive CIT training.

As part of the collaboration with George Mason, mental health clinicians are working with officers at the department. “If a call comes out and they’re needed, they will respond out together,” Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham told WTOP. “So, logistically, it’s seamless.”

Newsham said as part of the county’s Co-Responder Unit, if the clinician is “the best person suited” to handle a situation, they’ll step forward. If it is “a more dangerous situation and safety is an issue, than an officer will take the lead.”

Some of the situations can be “pretty dangerous,” Newsham said.

“One case I recall is we had a young man who a knife to his throat.” he said. “The co-responder went into the home, talked to this kid for a number of hours and eventually they were able to get this kid to treatment.”

Newsham said crisis intervention training is an important tool that allows officers to resolve situations involving a mental health crisis “in a safe and effective way.”

Those assigned to the unit aim to offer resources to individuals, as well as to “proactively identify and provide outreach to high consumers of public safety and mental health services,” according to a county news release.

The collaboration between Prince William County police and CEBCP is supported by more than $1 million in federal funding, the county said.

The police department said it responded to more than 3,300 mental health-related calls and handled over 600 transports totaling over 27,000 hours in 2021. That’s the equivalent of 13 full-time officers.

The Marcus Alert system must expand to all parts of Virginia by July 1, 2026.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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