RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia is launching a new system to improve the response to mental health emergencies.
The Marcus Alert system launches Wednesday in five regions in the state, news outlets report. The system is named for Marcus-David Peters, who was fatally shot in 2018 by police after he charged an officer amid a behavioral health crisis.
It will start as a pilot program in Richmond, Virginia Beach, Prince William County, Bristol, and adjacent Washington County, and five counties in the northern Piedmont. It must expand to all parts of the state by July 1, 2026.
It’s part of a rollout of new services financed by Virginia’s Medicaid program to help people in behavioral crises in their communities to avoid sending them to state mental hospitals, private emergency rooms and juvenile detention centers.
The system aims to use regional call centers to alert mental health teams to potential psychiatric emergencies, quickly assess risks and dispatch professionals to help the person in crisis by persuasion instead of force.
“It’s a behavioral health response to a behavioral health crisis,” said Heather Norton, assistant commissioner at the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. “We want to mitigate to the extent possible the need for law enforcement involvement.”
One way people will be able to reach one of the five new regional call centers is by dialing the new nationwide 9-8-8 number dedicated for this issue.
"We know that some of those calls can actually be resolved at the call center level," Heather Norton, Assistant Commissioner for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said.
More serious calls -- could include a mobile crisis response team being sent out to help.
"Our hope is that this will become a real system of care," Dr. John Lindstrom, CEO of the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, said.
If a call is more serious, officials will determine what kind of response team to send: a behavioral health team, police led, or a co-response team.
"That'll be a paired Behavioral Health Clinician with a trained law enforcement officer who ride along together and they intervene together," Lindstrom said.
Lindstrom helped put together Richmond's plan and said there are some elements not ready yet, including hiring people for the co-response team.
"The basic elements are in place. But the capacities will be ramping up over months and actually years," he said.
In all, officials hope all these new initiatives will help lead to the best outcomes for those in crisis.
As for next steps for the "Marcus Alert" program, each locality will have to submit plans to implement one by next summer and they will be rolled out in the coming years with the aim of statewide coverage by the summer of 2026.