Virginia Flag and SealWe’ve heard this tragic story too many times: Someone is experiencing a mental health crisis. A family member or friend calls the police for help. The individual in crisis reacts in a way that leads to their arrest…or worse. 

Now, thanks to a bill signed by Governor Ralph Northam in November 2020, Virginia is enacting policies that intend to limit the harm resulting from this type of call. Over the next few years, the Commonwealth will enact a Marcus alert system, a statewide mental health awareness response. 

The Mental Health Awareness Response and Community Understanding Services (Marcus) alert system is named for Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old high school teacher who, while experiencing a mental health crisis, was tragically shot and killed by a Richmond police officer on May 14, 2018. 

The Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) will collaborate and submit a plan for the establishment of the Marcus alert system no later than July 1, 2021. The main goal of the Marcus alert system, according to the legislative summary, is to promote a behavioral health response through the use of a mobile crisis response to behavioral health crises whenever possible, with law enforcement backup when necessary. Additionally, DCJS will oversee requirements regarding decreased use of force and the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement.

By December 1, 2021, DBHDS must establish five Marcus alert programs and community care or mobile crisis teams in the Commonwealth. Five additional programs must be established by July 1, 2023, and by July 1, 2026, all community services board or behavioral health authority geographical areas must have a Marcus alert system in place.

Importantly, the bill also provides that by July 1, 2022, every locality must have protocols in place for a diversion of certain 911 calls to crisis call centers, and for law enforcement participation in the Marcus alert system.

At Greenspun Shapiro, we are grateful for the enactment of this legislation. There is too often an overlap between those experiencing mental or behavioral health crises, and those caught in our justice system. As Governor Northam said, this bill represents “an important step forward in reforming a system that too often criminalizes mental illness.” We hope the Marcus alert system will be the first positive step of many to come.  

You can read more about this legislation on

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