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Policing reforms after 'Black Lives Matter' demonstrations

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Activists and police call for building community to fix mental health care

More than 15 million Americans protested across the country after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. Thousands demonstrated in Richmond that year to demand changes in policing – pointing to the killing of Marcus-David Peters by a Richmond police officer.

The base of the now-removed Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue became the central location for protestors calling for a reexamination of policing practices used in response to people in the midst of a mental health crisis.

In 2018, a Richmond police officer shot and killed Marcus-David Peters. The 24-year-old Black, high-school biology teacher was undressed and unarmed when he was shot. The officer who shot Peters, ten-year veteran Michael Nyantakyi, was cleared of any wrongdoing.

The incident sparked outrage and was the impetus for legislation to address how police respond to mental health calls.

Marcus-David Peters’ sister Princess Blanding, who is an educator turned activist, worked with lawmakers to pass the Marcus-David Peters Act in 2020. It established the Marcus Alert System, which was intended to encourage coordination between 911 and regional crisis call centers and create a specialized behavioral health response from police when responding to a behavioral health situation.

“We don't call on a construction worker to perform heart surgery. So, why are we calling our police officers to deal with mental illness?” Blanding asked.

“The original version of the Marcus Alert System called for us to create community care teams which had a mental health professional, a peer recovery specialist, and a police officer standing in back,” Blanding explained as she pointed to recent efforts to roll back the law.

In 2022, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill that allowed localities with a population of fewer than 40,000 to opt-out of implementing the Marcus Alert. Legislators cited funding and behavioral worker shortages as reasons smaller localities may not have the capacity to fulfill the law.

Blanding worries about what she sees as efforts to roll-back the Marcus-David Peters Act and stresses the need to address long-standing issues of mistrust regarding police.

“We see time and time again, from George Floyd to Brianna Taylor, to Tamir Rice to Marcus-David Peters,” Blanding listed a few of the names of Black people killed by police. “To my other brother, who was recently killed by a police officer.”

Blanding, who is one of 16 children, is now mourning the loss of a second sibling. New Jersey police shot and killed her 19-year-old brother Joshua Mathis in January. Police body camera video shows Mathis holding a knife and running toward officers before being shot. The incident is under investigation.

The Marcus Alert program is now operating in five Virginia localities - one in each region of the state – including Richmond, Virginia Beach, Prince William County and cities and counties served by the Rappahannock-Rapidan and Highland Community Services Boards. The remaining cities and counties that have yet to implement the system and are too large to opt-out, have until July 2026 to implement the Marcus Alert.

In the meantime, Blanding, who ran for Governor of Virginia in 2021, continues to advocate for change. She thinks reforms; such as implementing civilian review boards and removing qualified immunity for officers, which allows them protection from civil lawsuits; could be a step in the right direction.

Blanding also supports Governor Youngkin’s calls for additional mental health service funding.

“Invest it in those proactive measures,” Blanding said. “Invest it in those professionals, who can be the correct responders to the early signs of a mental health crisis.”

In Chesterfield County, the police department isn’t waiting for legislative reforms. It’s been working on improving community care for decades.

Police Chief Jeffery Katz said the way to build trust is to focus on building relationships within the community.

“It’s important for people to see us as partners and as advocates, as opposed to an occupying force,” Katz said.

Police officer Justin Abshier has been with the Chesterfield County Police Department for five years and recently joined the Community Engagement Unit, a team of nine officers who focus exclusively on building relationships within the community.

“In community engagement, our goal is to address those underlying problems,” Abshier said. “And see if we can reduce the crime or the call volume in certain areas by working with the community to do outside the box problem solving.”

The Community Engagement Unit works with local organizations and professionals to figure out ways to address chronic social issues like food insecurity, unemployment, and homelessness.

The chief hopes the positive engagement can help combat mistrust of the police.

“Because there’s so many negative messages out there about police, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we engage as many people as possible, before they need help,” Katz said. “So that they feel comfortable and safe reaching out to us so that we can provide them assistance in their time of need.”

Katz said the Chesterfield Police Department and local mental health professionals already have a strong working relationship and hopes they can continue to work together to provide services the community needs.

“When somebody calls that is in crisis, our interaction with them should be as minimal as possible.” Katz said. “We should be able to take them to a resource center and get them treatment as fast as possible. That is not happening right now. That needs to change.”

Chief Katz pointed to what he called a “broken” mental health care system. He argued the system currently doesn’t have the capacity to respond to those in need.

Chesterfield County has not yet implemented the Marcus Alert System. The chief says there are successful co-response models in the country, but he warns that the recent reforms may not be the best approach.

“The reflexive reform efforts of the last couple years have not made our community safer,” Katz said. “I think it’s important that we go back to the drawing board, and we evaluate from an informed perspective how we can all work together to improve our criminal justice system to enhance public safety.

The chief speaks to law enforcement leaders from around the world about the importance of building trust within a community.

He said, while his department in Chesterfield County is still a “work in progress,” he hopes other jurisdictions will implement similar community engagement efforts.