Dramatic increase in mental health-related calls limits Lynchburg Police amid staffing shortage

Lynchburg & Central Virginia News

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) — At a time when mental health-related calls are rising in the Hill City, officials with the Lynchburg Police Department say they are experiencing staffing challenges like they’ve never seen before.

On Wednesday, Oct. 6, the department says 11 officers in specialized functions had to be moved back into street duty due to the 28 vacant officer positions. Meanwhile, the department is receiving more calls than officers can handle lately.

Lynchburg Police Chief Ryan Zuidema says there’s been a dramatic increase in mental health-related calls in the community. In addition, the officers who respond to such calls sometimes have to stay with patients for days while they are being treated.

“It’s really an unfortunate perfect storm for us right now. We’re seeing a greater demand for service in the community and we’re seeing less officers available to meet those demands,” Zuidema explained.

(Photo: Amanda Lee/WFXR News)

While being nearly 30 officers down is a big part of the problem, the department is also dealing with a secondary drain on their resources that’s been around even longer.

“Our officers have been burdened with the significant challenge in meeting the need of all the mental health calls in our city, so it’s taking a longer amount of time,” Zuidema said. “Our officers are on those calls longer, so that doesn’t make those resources available for other calls in the city.”

The Lynchburg Police Department works with Horizon Behavioral Health to respond to some of these calls, but state law requires an officer to be present in many cases.

“Quite honestly, someone who’s in mental health crisis, sitting with a police officer in a hospital for two or three days is not getting that individual the service that they need and the help that they need,” explained Zuidema. “Unfortunately, those laws put a heavy burden on law enforcement agencies to be responsible for staying with those folks for days on end sometimes.”

According to Zuidema, the department has been trying to convince the state to change those laws regarding the presence of law enforcement during mental health calls.

(Photo: Amanda Lee/WFXR News)

At this time, police response times for non-emergency calls are expected to be slower in Lynchburg.

The Lynchburg Police Department has a mutual aid agreement with surrounding jurisdictions, but Zuidema tells WFXR News that those jurisdictions are experiencing some of the same challenges.

“When someone picks up the phone at two in the morning because someone has been shot or stabbed, I’ve gotta make sure I’ve got officers available to answer those calls,” Zuidema said.

In the meantime, the department is looking to hire new officers to fill the vacant positions. According to Zuidema, applicants should have “a strong moral compass.”

“We can take care of the rest of the training. We can teach them how to shoot a gun. We can teach them how to drive a car. We can teach them how to intervene in situations,” stated Zuidema. We’ll teach them law and all that stuff, but we need folks that have a sound set of morals and principles.”

If you are interested in joining the Lynchburg Police Department or learning more about the salary, benefits, and job requirements for Lynchburg law enforcement, click here.

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