About 10% of people charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer in Virginia over a period of nearly a decade had a history of mental illness, according to data from University of Virginia researchers presented Tuesday at the State Behavioral Health Commission.
In total, between 2009 and 2018, a total of 2,213 people with a history of mental illness were later charged with assaulting law enforcement. These people spent an average of 94.8 days in prison, more than the average of 79 days for subjects without a history of civil commitment.
Experts say these figures almost certainly underestimate such situations, given that the study only captured people with a record of issuing emergency custody or a temporary detention order – two types of civil bonds generally issued in crisis situations.
But currently, the data offers one of the only ways to gauge how often mental health plays a role in what are often non-serious assaults on police and other law enforcement officials, a said Heather Zelle, associate director of mental health policy research for UVA. Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy.
“The hope is that this gives some idea of why we might be looking at policy changes,” she said after the meeting. “We wanted to get a reading of the prevalence and highlight that it affects many people, even in cases where these accusations are not necessarily appropriate.”
This isn’t the first time experts have raised concerns about Virginia laws involving attacks on law enforcement.
Zelle said her team began collecting the data after staff clinicians noticed an increasing number of patients accused of crimes despite having no criminal history. In some cases, the police were called for a welfare check but ended up arresting the individual for assault or battery against an officer.
In Virginia, these charges can apply even in minor incidents without serious injuries.
Anna Mendez, executive director of the Charlottesville-based nonprofit Partner for Mental Health, said her local Commonwealth attorney had listed spitting as a primary offense in many of the bureau’s cases involving assault and bodily harm against law enforcement. In another case, first filed in late 2013, a young Hispanic woman with a history of mental illness was charged with felony assault for toss an onion ring to police at a restaurant in Northern Virginia.
This latest case has become a call to arms for some Democratic lawmakers pushing to exonerate the crime of assaulting a law enforcement officer — a conviction that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of six months in prison.
Senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, unsuccessfully filed legislation to eliminate the offense as an automatic crime in 2020 and 2021, saying the law disproportionately affected Virginians with mental illness. During the last session of the General Assembly, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, sponsored a related invoice it would have barred officers from filing assault and battery charges against people going through a mental health crisis if those officers were responding to a call for service.
A House committee killed Bourne’s legislation, but advocates are still calling for a change in Virginia laws.
“We’re not saying these charges can never be used, but we’re really trying to prevent those instances where everyone sits down and kind of realizes, ‘Hey, that’s wrong,'” Zelle said. .
Mendez also pointed out that felony convictions can have a devastating impact on the stability of people with mental illness long after they are released from incarceration.
“All of a sudden you can’t find housing, you can’t find jobs,” she said. “And those are two of the most crucial things for someone to achieve long-term mental health and well-being.”