Va. program connects first responders with people in crisis

As part of the Community Assistance Response program, paramedics and mental health professionals, rather than police, are at the forefront of non-violent crisis calls

Jessica Nolte
Daily Press

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Newport News launched a program last week that makes it one of the first cities in the state to use mental health professionals as first responders — rather than police — for nonviolent mental health crisis calls.

The Community Assistance Response program, called CARE, places trained paramedics and mental health professionals at the forefront of calls for service when a person is having a crisis. Police will also respond to the call but stage at a distance.



“We would like to make the police department a second responder, and the primary response would be from a clinician and a paramedic because we see in mental health issues that sometimes someone may be off their medication, that they may just need some calming down, some reassurance, they may need some medical attention,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said.

In its first week, the team responded to more than 30 calls.

Candice Frie, a CARE team community paramedic specialist, was drawn to the program after seeing a relative cope with mental illness.

“I didn’t necessarily love the way history has represented how we help the mentally ill,” Frie said. “This program is making it easier and less stressful for people who need help.”

Former Newport News Assistant Chief of Police Michael Hudgins brought the idea to Drew and the City Council last year. It’s modeled after a similar program started in Eugene, Oregon, in 1989.

The community-based public safety model was launched by a private entity in Eugene. It is dispatched through the police-fire-ambulance communications center.

In Newport News, the program is housed under the fire department and paid for with city funds. The CARE team is available for dispatch from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

Newport News Fire Chief Jeff Johnson said the city has been “reverse engineering” the Oregon-based program.

“I’m hoping we’ll be able to streamline things and not need police or fire to respond to every mental health situation because they’re really not needed for a lot of them,” Frie said.

The Newport News teams will wear a maroon polo shirt and khakis — considered less threatening than a police uniform.

The team includes two community paramedic specialists, two mental health professionals from the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board. They will respond to mental health crises, homelessness and minor medical needs.

”Hudgins saw a need to change our response when officers respond to mental health calls — depression, homelessness, suicide,” Drew said of the former assistant chief, who now runs the police department in Pineville, North Carolina. “Traditionally, we’ve sent uniformed officers there, and sometimes, to someone who has some of those mental challenges, that can be scary.”

It can also be dangerous.

2016 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated anywhere from 25% to more than 50% of fatal encounters with law enforcement involve someone with a mental illness.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the “Marcus Alert” legislation in December to create a statewide mental health alert system that would limit the role of law enforcement on calls for an individual in crisis and make behavioral health experts more readily available.

The alert was named after Marcus-David Peters, a high school biology teacher who was killed by a Richmond police officer in 2018 while experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

By summer 2026, all community services boards and behavioral health authorities will need an established Marcus alert system that includes a community care or mobile crisis team.

“The initial emphasis with this program was to reduce people in a mental health crisis interaction with police, but there are so many benefits to what we can do with this team,” Johnson said.

Teams of two will work from a marked van equipped with seating and tables, allowing them to meet with people at the scene rather than transporting them in a police car or ambulance.

“This program is: Let’s sit down, let’s relax and get people into a safe environment, then let a mental health professional do a real analysis on them and decide the services they need,” Johnson said.

Sometimes help looks like an ambulance taking the person to a hospital, but, in other cases, it may be developing a crisis or safety plan at the scene with a network of family and friends who can help the individual, CARE clinician Lisa Schaeperkoetter said.

“The client has to be agreeable that they’re not going to hurt themselves and that they’re not suicidal anymore,” Schaeperkoetter said. “They have to agree to let family watch them and agree to go to any scheduled appointments with their psychiatrist.”

Schaeperkoetter worked with emergency services for 11 years before taking this role and said when people have to wait at the hospital for a mental health evaluation, “oftentimes, the crisis is already over.” As a part of the CARE team, she’ll be able to intervene sooner.

“I’m hoping this will help so our psychiatric hospitals aren’t swelling to the brim,” Schaeperkoetter said. “I’m hoping that we can have resources in the community that can address needs before people need to be hospitalized.”

CARE team supervisor Lt. Andre Dorsey said the team already is looking at how it will be able to expand services. In the future, the team hopes to offer services including picking up medications for someone or taking them to a mental or behavioral health treatment facility in Hampton Roads.

“What we have seen over the years — and we see it all over the country — is individuals having some type of mental health crisis will be picked up by an ambulance or a police officer, taken to a hospital and there’s not much the hospital can do for them,” Johnson said. “Sometimes within hours — they go right back to where they were, same situation, no medicines, no assistance, no help.”

The CARE team is better equipped to handle mental health crises and can invest more time at the scene. Dorsey said on the team’s first call, it spent 30 minutes with the client.

“That initial intervention is so important,” Dorsey said. “The team doesn’t have a time limit, so they can really get to the root of what’s causing the problem.”

For now, the Newport News City Council has allocated $311,755 of its FY 2021 general fund to pay for the program.

Last year, city police responded to roughly 2,700 mental health emergencies. The fire department responded to all of those calls, plus an additional 500 to 700 calls.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 1 in 20 adults in the U.S. experience serious mental illness, and one out of every four people with serious mental illness have been arrested in their lifetime.

If the program is successful, the plan is to make the service available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

People who receive services from the CARE team won’t get a bill because the program is not set up as an emergency medical service operation, Johnson said.

“Really our goal is to serve our citizens and get them the best care, and this is a different model and a different way of providing that,” Johnson said.


©2021 Daily Press.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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