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Herring hears safety issues

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Attorney General Mark Herring shakes hands with  State Police 1st Sgt.  Keith Hairston  while Fredericksburg  Commonwealth’s Attorney La Bravia Jenkins looks on. (AUTUMN PARRY / THE FREE LANCE–STAR)

Attorney General Mark Herring shakes hands with State Police 1st Sgt. Keith Hairston while Fredericksburg Commonwealth’s Attorney La Bravia Jenkins looks on. (AUTUMN PARRY / THE FREE LANCE–STAR)

When state Attorney General Mark Herring asked Culpeper’s law enforcement community Tuesday to tell him what specific challenges they faced, the response of the dozen or so officials gathered was almost unanimous—heroin.

“I hate to call it an epidemic, but that’s what it is,” said Police Chief Chris Jenkins.

From the moment Commonwealth’s Attorney Megan Frederick brought up the subject, heroin’s plague on Culpeper was the discussed almost until Herring left for Fredericksburg, where public safety officials talked about how mental health issues have been law enforcement issues.

“We could work heroin 24/7,” Virginia State Police Special Agent Tom Murphy told Herring, adding that heroin use is more prevalent among the 18–26 age group.

“We know it is a bad problem, but we really don’t know the extent of it,” added state police Capt. Todd Taylor.

“There have been 20 deaths from heroin overdoses in Culpeper since I took office in January of 2013,” said Sheriff Scott Jenkins. “There have been many times that many overdoses.”

“There have been nine or 10 deaths in recent months,” explained town police Lt. Tim Chilton. “There are 10 or 15 overdose cases at the hospital every weekend.”

Culpeper Regional Hospital CEO Lee Kirk, who was in audience, quickly concurred. “There are not many days when we don’t have an overdose case,” Kirk told Herring.

Town police Chief Jenkins said the heroin problem was straining his overtime budget. Sheriff Jenkins said arresting heroin addicts—whether on drug charges or for crimes committed to support their addiction—was sapping his jail budget.

Frederick, who commended Sheriff Jenkins on his office’s pursuit of drug offenders, told Herring that her prosecutors are seeing a 38 percent increase in court appearances, with many of the cases heroin-related. She urged the attorney general to use any influence he has with state lawmakers to keep penalties for heroin and cocaine convictions as tough as possible.

When Herring asked about education and public awareness, Chilton responded, “When [drug users] hear how dangerous it is, that’s where they go. They are looking for the best high.”

Both Chilton and Frederick had harsh words for the 28-day drug rehabilitation program that courts often prescribe for offenders.

“They use that 28-day program to network their next deal,” Chilton said. “They have to be off the stuff for at least a year to have a chance. Usually there are only two solutions—jail or death.”

“I agree that the 28-day program is a waste of time,” Frederick said. “We need to help them, not just say we’re helping them.”

Human Services Director Lisa Peacock told Herring the heroin problem had “overwhelmed” her office. She added that it takes up to four months for addicts, especially those with mental problems, to be screened.

“This is devastating families,” she said.

Sheriff Jenkins spoke of one addict who stole, in one manner or another, more than $100,000 from his family to buy heroin.

“These guys tell each other, ‘Steal the money from your family, because they won’t have you arrested,’” Jenkins said.

Frederick and Chilton called for more multi-jurisdictional grand juries to help with the problem because most drug crimes occur over a broad area.

Herring, who is on a 22-stop tour of Virginia to meet with law enforcement officials, said liked the idea and added that the few areas using multi-jurisdictional grand juries find that they work well.

During his meeting in Fredericksburg, Herring received multiple questions about mental health issues that rely too much on law enforcement.

In Virginia, police are required to stay with individuals in emergency mental health custody situations for up to six hours. Currently, a psychiatric bed must be found before a temporary detention order can be issued for someone who poses a threat to himself or others.

Police officials expressed concern that the current law occupies police officers for multiple hours at a time, and is inefficient. The major cause cited is limited funding given to mental health care in Virginia and too few mental health facilities and services available.

“It’s a statewide problem, and we can’t deny that mental health services are underfunded,” said Spotsylvania Commonwealth’s Attorney Bill Neely.

Fellow law enforcement officials seconded Neely’s desire for the improvement of mental health evaluation processes.

“Virginia sees this as a criminal justice problem, not a mental health problem,” said State Police 1st Sgt. Keith Hairston.

During the recent General Assembly, Sen. Creigh Deeds, D–Bath, led reforms to existing mental health laws. Under the change, which will go into effect July 1, temporary detention orders can be issued without first finding a bed.

In addition, individuals can be held for up to 12 hours, but state mental hospitals would be required to accept them after eight hours.

Funding was also discussed. Herring said he supports increasing funds for training and services.

“You cannot be expected to do law enforcement on the cheap,” Herring said.

Many of the officials at Tuesday’s meeting expressed satisfaction with the discussion.

“The major concern was mental health services, and I feel that pertinent questions were asked and Herring approached our concerns properly,” Hairston said.

Others expressed surprise that Herring made the meeting a priority during his first few months in office.

“He didn’t have to take this time to come and have regional, more personal meetings with the public safety community,” said Fredericksburg Commonwealth’s Attorney La Bravia Jenkins.

“The beginning of my term was the best time to do this, so that all concerns can be heard and local resources can be dispersed accordingly,” said Herring. “The point of these meetings is to find out how I can help and to take care of specific regional needs.”

Donnie Johnston: