City prepares to implement the Marcus Alert System

Published 6:34 pm Tuesday, January 9, 2024

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The Suffolk Police Department aims to have a city-local plan to help with mental health emergencies. 

The Marcus Alert System is a program that enhances services for individuals suffering through a mental health crisis as well as substance use or developmental disability. The system is designed to aid 911 dispatchers in coordinating the proper behavioral health response. 

The program is named after Marcus-David Peters, a young black teacher who was killed by Richmond police during a mental health crisis in 2018. The program has been installed in 10 Central, Southwest, Southeast, Northern and Western Virginia localities. For Suffolk, the program will be mandated by July 1 of this year.

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“The Marcus Alert Legislation requires behavioral health, law enforcement and fire and rescue, and 911 calls centers to work together to better respond to behavioral health calls,” Buie said. “Overall, the job of the Marcus Alert System is to reduce the role of law enforcement when somebody is in a mental health crisis. It gives other avenues and other resources that they can have other than the police just responding and ECOs being issued and going that route.”

Buie further detailed the 988 hotline system that will help specifically for mental health crises.

“The goal is to have people call 988 when they’re in that situation and not call 911 directly. But if, in fact, 911 receives that call, there will be a soft handoff from 911 to the 988 center so they can start getting the resources that are needed to help that person who’s in that mental health crisis,” Buie said.

Buie further detailed that Virginia’s behavioral health crisis system is being modeled after the “Crisis Now” concept, which has four core elements: High-tech crisis call centers, 24/7 mobile crisis, crisis stabilization programs, and essential principles and practices. Buie detailed examples of the elements.

“The first, high-tech crisis call centers… that’s your 988 center. Your 24/7 mobile crisis is mobile integrated health, that’s a paramedic and counselor, a clinician, traveling in a Tahoe type vehicle. An unmarked vehicle, no lights, no siren, responding to these types of crises to intervene prior to police intervention,” Buie said. “The crisis stabilization programs, that’s kind of what we do now, that’s police responding, getting secure an ECO… getting a TDO and transporting that person to a facility to get the help they need. And the essential principles and practices, it meets the standards, and that is ever evolving for our communities needs…”

Buie talked about the 988 hotline, a three-digit code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, comprising a network of 200 local and state-funded crisis centers throughout the United States. He also detailed the Four Level Framework, noting that the Marcus Alert’s four levels help share communication across law enforcement, behavioral health, and the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). For the Suffolk and Western Tidewater Community Services Board model, Level 1 (Green) would have 911 PSAPs refer to 988 regional call centers. Level 2 (Yellow) provides a mobile crisis response and stays on the phone during the clinical assessment until 988 determines the response. Level 3 (Orange) would involve the co-responder team dispatched if there’s a safety concern, with different protocols being followed depending on the situation, such as law enforcement securing the scene and being there as a backup with the clinician making the first contact. Finally, Level 4 (Red) would have all law enforcement trained in local Marcus Alert protocols dispatched immediately. 

Following the presentation, when Council Member Roger Fawcett asked about the delay time for handoffs between 911 to 988, Buie said they would be “pretty instantaneous.” On Council Member Leroy Bennett’s question on how the level of the call is determined, Buie said it would be based on the “circumstances of the call.” 

“If the call is a person has a weapon or the person is currently doing harm to themselves, then that obviously goes right to A level 4 type of call, which would get your police response and your medics response,” Buie said. “Based on the information given to either the 988 operator or the dispatcher, that would create the level.”

When Bennett asked about their procedures for determining emergency and nonemergency equipment use, Buie detailed their priority calls.

“We have priority one, two and three calls. Priority one being the most urgent call. If there’s a weapon involved or an accident with injuries, somebody wounded by a weapon of that nature, that requires a priority one response. Which means emergency equipment activated, blue lights and sirens.”

On Council Member John Rector’s question if this would alleviate the police department’s need to stay with people being transported to a facility, Buie said not at this point.

“At this point, we have other things in the works that are going to help us in that, but if the police officer is with the person and transports the person and has custody of that person, then at this point, no. This will not alleviate the fact that the officer still needs to stay with that person until the conclusion,” Buie said. “What we hope that it alleviates is that officers don’t respond to every mental health crisis. This is set to deviate from where the person is referred to other agencies other than a police response every single time we have a mental health crisis.”

Following City Manager Albert S. Moor II noted that another presentation will be revealed on the program “closer to launch time,” Mayor Michael D. Duman expressed that mental health is a “top-of-mind issue” for Suffolk and beyond.

“I think this initiative is going to help address those issues. It’s also going to place more of a responsibility it seems like on our 911 operators, because that’s going to be the first contact as they always are unless somebody calls 988 directly, they’re going to have to make that determination as to level,” Duman said. “So I assume that there’s additional training that comes along with that also as this program is implemented.”

If you are in crisis, please call, text, or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. For more information, go to