The Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, led by Stacey Kincaid, pictured above, is among the county agencies that established Diversion First, a new program aimed at treating people with mental illnesses instead of incarcerating them.

Fairfax County officials expressed optimism about the effectiveness of a newly established, county-wide program that emphasizes treatment, rather than jail time, for people with mental illnesses.

Since Diversion First took off on Jan. 1, the Fairfax County Police Department has diverted 103 people, or 39 percent of its mental health-related investigations, to the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s Merrifield Crisis Response Center (MCRC), according to Chief Edwin Roessler Jr., one of several officials who provided updates on the program at a Feb. 11 press conference.

“Diversion’s not a new concept, but it is a new priority initiative here in the county,” said Braddock District Supervisor John Cook, who chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ public safety committee. “Our goal is to provide treatment for people with mental illness as an alternative to incarceration.”

Cook added that, along with helping the low-level, nonviolent offenders who are eligible for the program, the mental health treatment offered through Diversion First also carries a much lower cost than incarceration does.

Fairfax County government leaders and agencies started developing Diversion First, which Roessler said is modeled on the diversion system used in Bexar County, Texas, shortly after the February 2015 death of Natasha McKenna, a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder who died in a county jail after a struggle with deputy sheriffs.

Led by CSB Fairfax County at-large chair Gary Ambrose, the Diversion First stakeholders group, which was initially comprised of 49 state and county leaders, law enforcement and public safety representatives, advocacy groups and community members, held its first meeting on Aug. 3.

The group established Jan. 1, 2016 as the program’s start date and outlined its central goals, including expanding crisis intervention team (CIT) training, adding more mobile crisis units, creating a mental health docket in court, and increasing the capacity of the MCRC.

According to Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, 40 percent of the county’s inmates have a mental illness or a co-occurring substance abuse disorder. While many county facilities now have CSB staff present, Diversion First aims to keep people with mental illness out of jail to begin with.

“When a person comes to jail with mental illness, they leave the jail with mental illness,” Kincaid said. “What we’re focused on is a system where people suffering from mental illness can get the help they so desperately need, so they can turn their lives around and break that vicious cycle.”

Fairfax County Police officers conducted 265 mental health investigations in the field during the first month of Diversion First, with 42 of those cases involving CIT-trained personnel, and mobile crisis unit staff served 91 clients, 20 percent of whom were referred by law enforcement.

According to Ambrose, the Diversion First stakeholders group now has more than 100 members, and the county has added a second mobile crisis unit.

Since Jan. 1, the county has also a police officer and a deputy sheriff who work in the MCRC 21.5 hours per day, seven days a week. The personnel who permanently staff the center can take over custody of people brought in by patrol officers.

“In the past, an officer had to stay with that person, often through the entire night,” Cook explained. “Now that officer transfers custody here, and that officer can go back on the street, so we’ve created an incentive from a time perspective to use the system in appropriate cases.”

The decision regarding whether to bring an individual to the Merrifield Center or to transport them to an adult detention center lies with the officers on the scene, according to Roessler.

“Clearly, there’s a defining line of serious felonies, crimes that involve violence against others. We need to protect society, and unfortunately, sometimes we have to take them to jail,” the police chief said.

To ensure that officers are properly equipped and better informed to make that judgment call, Diversion First calls for improved training for law enforcement and other public safety officials, including fire and rescue personnel.

Roessler says the police department has altered its criminal justice academy to emphasis “constitutional policing” and CIT training in the first week of each session. 90 people graduated from the department’s 40-hour CIT training in 2015, and 176 more officers are projected to complete the course by the end of 2016, though the ultimate goal is to eventually have the entire force, both current officers and new recruits, undergo the training.

The chief also announced that all Fairfax County Police officers will receive training from March through May in the critical decision-making model of policing, which teaches officers how to deescalate situations so they can avoid using force. Fairfax County will become the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to have its entire police force trained in the critical decision-making model, according to Roessler.

This emphasis on training reflects nationwide efforts to change how law enforcement personnel interact with citizens.

“We see the majority of our use of force is in interactions with those that are suffering mental health episodes,” Roessler said. “We’re reengineering our efforts in Fairfax County to serve those with mental health issues, and we’re doing a terrific job.”

While county government and law enforcement officials touted the early success of Diversion First, the program has encountered some challenges, primarily due to the limited capacity of the MCRC.

Roessler says the county has made progress on providing more room for juveniles, but it’s ultimately a state issue.

“Beds are an absolute issue,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Sharon Bulova said. “We’ll be partnering with the state, the General Assembly and the governor to make sure we have what we need.”

Funding for further expansion of Diversion First was provided in the budget released by the county executive on Tuesday.

While basic diversion and the ability to transfer custody to MCRC officials have been established, Fairfax County plans to spend the next three to five years expanding the capacity of and variety of services offered by Diversion First.

“While there’s an upfront cost to Diversion First, it’s important for us to realize, first of all, that it’s the right thing to do,” Bulova said. “Secondly, there’s enormous savings in not having someone spend time in jail but instead [having them] receive treatment and continue to live in the community.”

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