Fairfax County officials have launched a program to steer people with mental-health problems away from jail, an effort partly inspired by last year’s death of a mentally ill woman who was restrained and Tasered at the county jail.
Under the Diversion First program, police take nonviolent offenders to a crisis-response center in Merrifield or another facility in the state, where they receive counseling and a place to sleep instead of jail time.
County officials began the program at the start of the year and have handled 265 cases. On Thursday, they held a news conference at the Merrifield Crisis Response Center to formally unveil how it works.
“What we are focused on is a system where people suffering from mental illness can get the help that they so desperately need so that they can turn their lives around and not continue to come into jail,” Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid said.
She said one inspiration for the effort was the 2015 death of Natasha McKenna, who was restrained and hit with a stun gun four times inside the county jail. McKenna, 37, stopped breathing a short time later and died days later at a hospital.
But with 40 percent of the county jail population suffering from mental-health problems, “this is something that has been in the works for a long time,” Kincaid said.
The program, part of Fairfax’s broader effort to reform its policing agencies, trains deputies and county police to deal more sensitively with those with mental-health problems who might have committed a crime.
Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said the program should help reduce the number of arrests that turn violent. “We see the majority of our use of force is the interaction of people who suffer from mental-health episodes,” he said. “We need to re-engineer the law enforcement effort.”
Kevin Earley, a county counselor for mentally ill people who have been arrested, said he has experienced firsthand the difference sensitivity training can make during a police encounter.
Earley said he suffers from bipolar disorder, which about 10 years ago led to his arrest in Fairfax after escaping from a mental-health facility.
When the arresting officer placed his hand atop Earley’s head to guide him safely into the squad car, Earley reacted violently, prompting the officer to use a Taser on him.
In 2007, Earley was again taken into custody.
That time, he said, an officer who had been trained to deal with those with mental-health issues transported Earley to a hospital without handcuffing him and even asked him which radio station he preferred.
“I joked with the police officer that without the handcuffs, it felt more like a ride in a taxicab than a police car,” Earley said.
“And that is the point of these services: to make the ride more like a taxi than a police car, heading in the direction of hope.”