Fairfax County Launches Jail Diversion, My Son Kevin Speaks At News Conference

(2-11-16) Fairfax County, Virginia, officially announced today that its Diversion First effort to reduce the number of persons with mental illnesses in the county jail by diverting low risk offenders into community based treatment is up-and-running. This is tremendous news. It was even sweeter news for me because my son, Kevin, was asked to speak at this morning’s news conference about the importance of jail diversion. I am proud that he is a member of the county’s jail diversion team. 

Getting support for Crisis Intervention Team training, jail diversion, the opening of a crisis drop-off/assessment center, and a mental health docket has been a long and bumpy process in my home county. But thanks to a handful of determined officials it has happened.

In Virginia, we have a board of supervisors that runs our county governments, and Board Member John C. Cook and Board Chairwoman Sharon Bulova have been the driving forces behind Diversion First. On the law enforcement side, Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, Fairfax Police Chief Lt. Col. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., and Deputy County Executive David Rohrer each played key roles in forming a coalition that eventually brought more than a 100 different groups together to endorse jail diversion. On the mental health side, the effort was championed by Gary Ambrose, a member of the Community Service Board, which provides mental health treatment in Fairfax; Laura Yager, who assisted him, and Tisha Deeghan, our CSB executive director. Delegates Marcus Simon and Vivian Watts provided support in the general assembly.

Fairfax County has had a jail diversion program in place for more than a decade, but that effort did not get the support and attention that it deserved until after the death of Natasha McKenna, a 37 year-old woman with schizophrenia who died after being repeatedly shot with a Taser on February 3rd, 2015 in our local jail.

Sheriff Kincaid, who was heavily criticized after McKenna’s death, deserves credit and praise for her role in making jail diversion a priority after that tragedy. Sheriff Kincaid led a team of county officials to Bexar County, Texas, to look at its model jail diversion program, and she immediately began taking steps to improve jail services. Difficult times test an elected official and Sheriff Kincaid’s actions after McKenna’s death have demonstrated her commitment to helping persons with mental illnesses.

Gary Ambrose also deserves kudos for leading the Diversion First effort. A retired general, Gary lost his son to mental illness in 2014.

As part of the Fairfax Police Department’s contribution, Chief Roessler has pledged to get 100 percent of his police force trained in the Memphis model of CIT and has assigned a full time officer, Ryan Morgan, to oversee CIT training.

The county is in the process of opening the Merrifield Crisis Response Center, a drop-off/assessment facility where persons in crisis can be taken to be evaluated rather than being booked into jail or dumped in a hospital emergency room. In addition to CIT training for law enforcement, the county is pushing Mental Health First Aid training for court officials. Fairfax Judge Thomas P. Mann has agreed to oversee a mental health docket and  Commonwealth Attorney Raymond Morrogh’s Office has agreed to participate in Diversion First, which will be critical to its success.

Chief Roessler told reporters that in January, his officers dealt with 265 individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis. In 40 percent of those cases — 107 — individuals were taken to the new crisis assessment center rather than jail or a hospital. He said 39 percent of those incidents were handled by CIT trained officers.

It is sad, but not surprising, that it took Natasha McKenna’s death to make diversion a priority. Thankfully, Fairfax officials have responded by implementing steps that will prevent future such tragedies.



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.