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Mental health was at the top of the list of concerns last week when Fairfax County’s top cops met with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

Herring met with local county, municipal and law enforcement officials on March 21 as part of a two-week, 22-stop regional public safety tour across the state.

Fairfax County was Herring’s 11th stop, marking the halfway point through his tour.

In attendance at the Fairfax County meeting were Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler, City of Fairfax Police Chief Rick Rappoport, Town of Vienna Police Chief James Morris, Virginia State Police Sgt. Robert Alessi, deputy county executive in charge of public safety David M. Rohrer, and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, among others.

When Herring asked the assembled group what the county’s number one public safety concern was, the unanimous answer was that law enforcement resources are being increasingly and inordinately spent on individuals with mental health issues.

“Many mental health service budgets are being stretched because of cuts,” said Deputy County Executive Rohrer, who also is the immediate past Fairfax County police chief. “This has led to increased calls for officers to be called out due to individuals not receiving the proper mental health care they need.”

Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler added that in addition to increased service calls, county police officers also spend massive amounts of work time dealing with the transportation of mentally ill individuals to far-away facilities because they are the only ones available.

“The biggest obstacle is bed space,” he said. “It is not uncommon for us to have to take two active officers out of service for 6-8 hours at a time to transport these individuals as far away as Petersburg or Norfolk, because that’s where the nearest bed is.”

“Capacity is a significant issue,” Rohrer said. “We all want to do the right thing and divert these individuals where they need to go, but it is utilizing vast amounts of our public safety resources.”

Fairfax County Sheriff Stacy Kincaid added that many of the inmates in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center suffer from mental health issues, and likewise are usurping inordinate amounts of resources there as well.

She previously has said that as many as 60 percent of inmates in the 1,300-person-capacity jail suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues.

“The jail has become their default health care provider, but that’s not the answer. We just can’t sustain it,” she told Herring at the meeting. Kincaid previously has proposed a program that would utilize mental health professionals on a volunteer basis as case managers for ex-convicts with mental health issues as a way of battling recidivism.

“Public safety is more than just locking people up,” she said during the meeting.

“Battling recidivism is really, really hard,” Bulova said. “For example, many Virginia laws work against these ex-offenders, preventing them from getting jobs with the state once they are released.”

Rohrer agreed that something desperately needs to be done to help all ex-convicts re-enter the workforce once they have paid their debt to society, so that they do not return to incarceration.

“I agree that real re-entry means supplying individuals with job training, skill sets and housing,” he said. “Not just an early release from jail.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com