Natasha McKenna died a little more than a year ago on Feb. 7, 2015. McKenna, with a long history of severe and often untreated mental illness, had been deteriorating in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center since Jan. 26, 2015, arriving directly from release from the hospital on an outstanding warrant from the City of Alexandria charging felonious assault on an Alexandria police officer.
We can’t know whether new efforts to provide people in mental health crisis might have saved her life if they were available and put in place early in this particular crisis, which appears to have begun a month before her death. McKenna’s death is a terrible tragedy, and no new program will remove that horror.
But it’s clear that treatment rather than jail can make all the difference for many people who come into contact with law enforcement in a mental health crisis. Diversion First is a collaborative effort in Fairfax County to reduce the number of people with mental illness in the county jail by diverting low risk offenders experiencing a mental health crisis to treatment rather than bringing them to jail.
Sheriff Stacey Kincaid estimates that 40 percent of detainees at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center have mental illness. Notably, it is far more expensive to house someone in county jail than to provide treatment.
The collaborative effort was in no small part launched by Supervisor John Cook when he asked that the Board of Supervisors to add crisis intervention training to the scope of work of the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission. The Mental Health subcommittee along with the Community Services Board, the Sheriff’s Department, police and mental health advocates set and met an aggressive agenda and timetable for implementation, with the program actually beginning in less than a year, on Jan. 1, 2016. In the first month, the Merrifield Crisis Response Center handled more than 100 cases involving police and people in mental health crisis.
Merrifield Crisis Response Center operates as an assessment site where police are able to transfer custody of nonviolent offenders who may need mental health services to a CIT-trained officer or deputy assigned there, instead of taking them to jail.
How far-reaching, life-saving and resource-preserving Diversion First will turn out to be will depend on how it is implemented and the discretion and policies of the police and prosecutors, among others.