PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. — Prince William County passed a new budget Tuesday night to allow more mental health therapists to respond to calls with their police department.
The pilot program began in late 2020, with clinicians responding to certain calls throughout the county along with officers.
Because of the tense climate with police and some communities, Prince William County has been trying to get ahead of any potential crisis.
The budget passed Tuesday night will allow for three new mental health therapists and three new officers to add to the co-responder unit. Their goal is to meet people where they are.
“We've seen an increase in the care we can provide to individuals in crisis by meeting them potentially at their residence, or at the place they're in crisis,” Prince William Police Lieutenant Michael Day said.
Lieutenant Day said from January to the end of March, they’ve responded to 240 calls with co-responder units. That’s when an officer and a counselor both show up.
“It allows us to help reduce some of the stigma and other things associated with mental illness or other forms of crisis because [the] crisis isn't just centered around mental illness. Crisis comes in many forms," Day said.
Of the hundreds of calls they’ve responded to, Prince William Police said they’ve been able to help 25 people avoid criminal charges.
Heather Baxter, the Behavioral Health Program Manager, said that’s their daily goal.
“We've had experiences with people who have passed away, people who are the family, who are left there to manage that, and our clinicians being on scene has very much helped them to cope with that as well,” Baxter said.
Shooting incidents involving police have dominated our headlines. Before we move on from one, another seems to happen. Day is hopeful the relationship between all communities and police will strengthen by simply meeting people where they are.
“Give us a chance. You know, we want to be able to de-escalate, to get the individual in crisis to the proper care that they deserve, that is offered to them within the community. There's a lot of resources out there that we can offer people, and the goal ultimately to be able to do that. To continue to reduce the number of times we have to take somebody in emergency custody,” Day said.
As of now, clinicians are not responding to every single call, that’s a goal for later down the line. Baxter said if you have to call 911 and need a counselor or mental health professional to arrive with the officer, you just have to ask.
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