SWVa. law enforcement exhaust resources transporting mental health patients


Over the last two days, police in Abingdon have spent 64 hours, more than $2,000 and traveled 1,300 miles to transport five mental health patients.

Law enforcement said its using up their resources and costing taxpayer dollars. Now several local departments are working to change the way they handle mental health cases.

In Virginia, a person showing signs of a mental illness can be issued what's called an Emergency Custody Order (ECO). That's where police come in. Under state law, it then becomes their job to take the patient to a hospital.

If that's not enough, a Temporary Detention Order (TDO) can be issued. Police must then transport them to a mental health facility. It's a process that can take up to 24 hours.

If a magistrate deems someone mentally ill, police in Virginia must take them to the nearest mental health facility that has an open bed, even if it means traveling across the state.

"It wouldn't be surprising for us to transport people to Virginia Beach, Norfolk," Major Byron Ashbrook with the Washington County Sheriff's Office said.

"We've been to Petersburg twice this week, we've been to Fredericksburg once last week," Abingdon police chief Tony Sullivan said. "We're talking six to eight hour trips, one way."

And taxpayer dollars pay for all of that travel and overtime. Law enforcement said those long trips take resources away from the local communities.

"It's not that I'm not wanting to help - they need help," Ashbrook said. "But we need more funding in order to do it and still be able to police our county."

In 2016, Washington County sheriff's deputies transported around 300 mental health patients. Abingdon police took care of 108.

Kandace Miller-Phillips works at Highlands Community Services. She is the Director of Crisis Services. She said she does see a higher rate of TDOs in our region.

One reason is because there's more substance abuse and poverty - two factors that go hand-in-hand with mental illness. Miller-Phillips said another reason is that there are more than 10 adult living facilities in Washington County alone.

"Adult living facilities is where the severely mentally ill population - that's where they live," she said.

So to law enforcement, the solution is clear.

"We need to open treatment centers," Sullivan said. "We need to make treatment closer."

"If there's such a big demand for mental health treatment facilities, let's try to meet that demand," Ashbrook added.

Miller-Phillips understands the strain put on police, so she agreed more resources and a better way to transport patients is the answer.

"As long as we can get the consumer there safely and they're treated in a humane manner, absolutely, we would support that," Miller-Phillips said.

Sullivan said he is working with local legislators to find a solution. Some ideas he has for transportation include using a private ambulance service or creating a drop-off center for multiple patients to make the long trips more efficient.

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