RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia lawmakers passed a bill allowing smaller localities to opt out of the “Marcus Alert” law, a measure passed in 2020 that aimed to improve the response to mental and behavioral health emergencies.
The legislation was named after Marcus-David Peters, who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer in 2018 while experiencing an apparent mental health crisis alongside I-95. Peters, a 24-year-old teacher, was naked when he charged the officer who shot him.
The law set out to have localities implement a system requiring mental health professionals to join law enforcement when responding to incidents where people were experiencing a mental health crisis.
But state lawmakers agreed to amend the law this year to give localities with populations under 40,000 an opt-out option, citing cost concerns and a shortage of behavioral health workers in smaller localities. Of Virginia’s 133 localities, 89 have fewer than 40,000 residents.
Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates were behind the proposal to give smaller localities more time to comply with the law. But House Democrats voted against the measure when the compromise to make way for the opt-out option was up for a floor vote.
Del. Margaret Ransone (R-Westmoreland), the sponsor of the House’s version of the bill, said before the floor vote on March 11 that the conference report that lawmakers agreed upon combined the General Assembly’s two proposed changes.
Under the approved bill, every locality in Virginia would need to establish a voluntary database by July 2023 that is available to the Marcus Alert system and 911 alert system “to provide relevant mental health information and emergency contact information for appropriate response to an emergency or crisis.”
Localities with populations under 40,000 can opt out of having law enforcement participate in the alert system.
The Virginia Senate was nearly unanimous in its vote, with state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), one of the first supporters of the 2020 law, being the only one to vote against the change to the “Marcus Alert” law.
State Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William), one of the lawmakers who introduced the 2020 legislation, said before the Senate voted last Friday that legislators have agreed to work to help localities that need more funding to implement the system.