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Charlottesville leaders have no plan yet to create a mobile crisis unit to respond to police calls

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While there currently is no proposal for a mobile crisis unit, some Charlottesville City Council members say they would like to explore ideas for mental health-driven alternatives to law enforcement for crisis response.

“Having talked to various councilors I do believe there would be support for something along these lines,” said Councilor Sena Magill. 

The sentiment was echoed by Councilors Michael Payne, Lloyd Snook and Heather Hill. Mayor Nikuyah Walker did not respond by the time of this publication. Magill noted that the council has yet to meet specifically to address its particulars since the topic surfaced during an Aug. 4 community listening session on policing. That idea was first raised in a July 16 Charlottesville Tomorrow article.

“At this point, the conversations are definitely preliminary,” Payne said. “Not because of a lack of desire or will, but because we still have lots of information to gather and consider about how we can take concrete steps to move from ‘idea’ to ‘policy.’”

Payne also noted that any efforts to realize an idea will require thought on funding, what type of model would work best for the Charlottesville community and how such a developed idea “would interact with Virginia’s underfunded state-level mental health care system and state law around things like emergency custody orders.”

In July, a director at Region Ten Community Service Board suggested the idea of a mobile crisis unit composed of clinicians who could respond to mental-health related crises either with or in place of law enforcement. The idea aimed to help eliminate the need for officers’ presence in situations where community members say they are not the ideal responders. 

Presently, Region Ten collaborates with the Charlottesville Police Department’s crisis-trained officers for calls that pertain to mental health crises as part of a training program called the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). While Magill, who formerly worked at Region Ten commended the CIT program for its focus on recognizing and responding to mental health crises, she said that “it doesn’t take the place of years of experience working in mental health.”

Throughout the summer, activists have called for defunding police departments — a proposal that ranges from dismantling and creating something new to divesting funds from law enforcement into social programs and organizations. 

While some community members support the idea for a mobile crisis unit’s ability to lessen or eliminate officer’s interactions with individuals in mental health crises, others have criticized the proposal if Region Ten were to spearhead it.

“It’s like moving money from one system that has systemic and structural issues related to race to another system that has some of those same issues,” said Myra Anderson, a mental health advocate. 

Anderson, who has previously served as a board member and peer support specialist at Region Ten, also has received its services. After complaints about how she was treated — to include a lack of racial awareness — the Virginia Human Rights Committee eventually ruled that the organization had prevented her from receiving services in retaliation. 

“Looking at my experiences and a lot of the things I was complaining about, I think Region Ten does not have the ability to exercise all of their professional and clinical skills when it comes to somebody with Black skin,” Anderson explained. 

Region Ten employees have since attended racial and cultural training sessions.

In the meantime, though a member of Region Ten suggested the model for a mobile crisis unit, the organization has not formally developed a proposal. Its executive director, Lisa Beitz, asserts that Region Ten will listen to the community’s needs.

“We will continue to listen to the critical needs and gaps in services that connect with Region Ten’s mission, and will partner with the community to respond accordingly,” Beitz said in a recent statement.

Magill noted that there are “a number of types of models that other localities have used” that the Charlottesville community can explore. Previously, Snook has cited the example of the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, a program that operates much like the mobile crisis unit idea.

Before any type of new model can be formed, Anderson said a work group composed of mental health experts and people who have received mental health care themselves should be assembled.

“I think we need to create a work group to look at this. There should be mental health professionals at the table and people who have been most affected and can speak from experience on what it’s like to be in crisis — what had helped and what didn’t,” Anderson said. “Perhaps we can create a model for our community that is inclusive and has the voice of all people at the table.”