Herring hears from area law officers

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring speaks to area police administrators during a Public Safety Tour at Warren County Public Safety Building in Front Royal on Monday afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — Local law enforcement officials pressed Attorney General Mark Herring on Monday for help in evaluating and transporting prisoners showing signs of mental illness.

Prisoners in need of mental health care and the rising toll of heroin addiction dominated the hour-long meeting. The meeting was a stop on a statewide tour by Herring to hear from local law enforcement officials about their needs and concerns.

Those at the meeting included law enforcement officials from Page, Warren and Shenandoah counties.

Front Royal police Chief Norman Shiflett asked for a facility to hold newly arrested prisoners with mental health problems while local police try to find transportation to a facility designated for care of the mentally ill.

“Is there any way we can have a holding facility, especially when we have a transport at 3 a.m., and we have to call somebody else to do that for us?” Shiflett asked.

Front Royal Police Chief Norman Shiflett, left, and Warren County Sheriff Danny McEathron, right, listen as a colleague speaks during Attorney General Mark Herring's Public Safety Tour at Warren County Public Safety Building in Front Royal on Monday afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

Herring said his office has provided money for training law enforcement officers in techniques for de-escalating encounters with mentally ill suspects and the General Assembly has “taken steps” to increase funding for regional mental health assessment facilities around the state.

Herring said the complaint about the burdens of evaluating and transporting prisoners with mental health problems was one he heard during last year’s tour of the state. The wait for a mental health evaluation can take six to eight hours, Herring said.

When Herring asked those present for the location of the nearest regional assessment center, “if there is one,” none of the law enforcement officials answered.

Shiflett said his agency takes prisoners showing symptoms of mental illness to Warren Memorial Hospital, where they can be evaluated by an outside mental health professional.

“That’s not the real problem. The real problem is the transport,” Shiflett said.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Jay Perry, coordinator of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, speaks on regional heroin use during Attorney General Mark Herring's Public Safety Tour at Warren County Public Safety Building in Front Royal on Monday afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

Herring said he regretted that many people charged with crimes and facing incarceration have underlying mental conditions that contributed to the behavior that landed them in jail.

“Unfortunately, all too often someone who is suffering from mental illness ends up in the criminal justice system when what they need is treatment and hospitalization, and the sooner we can get it, the better,” Herring said.

Warren County Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron said eight percent of all prisoners in the county jail were diagnosed with mental disorders when he was first elected sheriff in 2004.

“Last year, at the time we opened the regional jail, it was at 38 percent,” McEathron said, adding that the closing of several mental health facilities made it harder to ensure patients were taking medication.

As a result, McEathron said, some people have been committing crimes that probably would not have happened if they were taking their medication as directed.

“Our jails should not be the mental health facility by default,” Herring replied.

Herring asked McEathron how the regional jail has been operating during its first nine months.

“I think it’s working pretty good,” McEathron said. “It’s getting over that first hump.”

Herring said comments he heard during last year’s tour led him to launch several initiatives aimed at limiting the flow of heroin into the state. The effort included a public awareness campaign of the heroin problem, working more closely with federal and state prosecutors “to go after dealers and traffickers” and education programs in the schools.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Jay Perry, who leads the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, delivered a blunt assessment when Herring asked if there were any signs that heroin overdoses and trafficking were starting to slow.

“The short answer is no,” Perry told Herring. “We haven’t seen a top off yet.”

The drug task force covers Warren, Shenandoah, Page Frederick and Clarke counties and Winchester. The eight deaths from opioid overdoses recorded so far this year is close to the same death rate as last year when 33 people died from overdoses, Perry said.

Herring asked about the impact of changing state policies that allow for inmates to be locked up for as long as two years in local jails instead of the long standing practice of sending inmates away to state prisons for sentences exceeding one year.

“What’s it going to do to your numbers?” Herring asked.

Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said he worried that long term plans that shape the size and operational details of new jails could be “disrupted” by new policies requiring jails to keep more inmates for longer periods of time.

“You plan on a specific growth figure, and if anything disrupts that growth figure, in other words, makes it grow faster, then there’s got to be operational issues that come up,” Carter said. “It may not be this year. It may be two or three years from now.”

Herring said Carter’s concerns reinforced the need for effective programs that ease former inmates re-entry into the outside world after their sentences are served. The goal, Herring said, is to reduce the likelihood that newly released inmates will commit more offenses requiring their return to jail.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com