House advances MARCUS alert bill

House advances MARCUS alert bill
Virginia Capitol (Source: wvir)

RICHMOND, Va. -- The House of Delegates approved a bill Thursday that would create teams of mental health service providers and peer recovery specialists to accompany police officers responding to individual crises.

House Bill 5043, introduced by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, was approved by a vote of 57-39. The legislation needs passage from the state Senate and a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam to become law.

“This was brought about by a tragedy,” Bourne said.

Dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services (MARCUS) alert system, Bourne’s proposal references the death of a Black man who was shot and killed during an encounter with the Richmond Police Department in 2018.

Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus, was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer as he charged the officer after a taser was deployed. Peters was unarmed and his family said he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

“It’s horrific to watch,” Bourne said about police body camera footage of the incident.

Bourne’s bill would require the Virginia Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and Criminal Justice Services departments to work together to create evidence-based training programs for the care teams and to develop a plan by June 1, 2021 for statewide implementation.

Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, said she supports the end goal of the proposal but is concerned it will endanger more people without a slower rollout and because mental health resources are “stretched thin.”

Coyner said she is “very emotional” about the issue after growing up with an aunt who suffered from intellectual disabilities and who attempted suicide multiple times. She said while over time, “mental health providers did everything they could,” her family ultimately had to call 911 for the police’s help.

“If we had to wait longer for someone to arrive, she may not have been with us still,” Coyner said.

Del. Michael Mullin, D-Newport News, said he appreciated Coyner’s words and understands the concern for public safety. However, Mullin — an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Hampton — said the state has “criminalized mental health issues.”

“So much of the work we have been doing today and in the days preceding this has been to reverse 30 years of overcriminalization,” Mullin said. “This bill does a small step in making sure that individuals who are in crisis are not treated as criminals.”

Princess Blanding, Peters' sister, recently testified during the bill’s hearing before the House Public Safety Committee. She said her brother “absolutely deserved help, not death” on the day of his fatal shooting.

“When a person’s kidneys stop functioning properly, they receive dialysis if needed,” Blanding said. “When a person’s heart stops functioning properly, they receive bypass surgery if needed. But the brain is the only major organ that, when it stops functioning properly, we demonize, we incarcerate, and in the case of so many Black people, death is the final answer.”

Blanding has spoken at multiple demonstrations in Richmond since protests sparked by the death of George Floyd began in late May, demanding the city fully fund the alert system as well as establish a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Senate Bill 5038, introduced by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, also seeks to establish an alert system. It still needs to pass the Senate before moving to the House of Delegates.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.