Charlottesville City Council on Monday voted to re-enact the city’s ordinance to assure continuity of government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ordinance, which was initially enacted in March 2020, temporarily changes certain deadlines, modifies public meeting and hearing practices and procedures and authorizes other emergency actions necessary to assure safe and efficient government operations.
While the council voted to repeal the city’s COVID-19 ordinance earlier in the meeting, the city’s declaration of emergency will remain in place for now. The city will defer to state guidelines and Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive orders to limit spread of the coronavirus.
The ordinance allows the council to operate and hold its meetings electronically. According to the ordinance, any meetings or activities that normally would require the physical presence of a quorum of members of a public body may be held only through “real time electronic means.” The City Council currently meets via Zoom webinar, which is made available to the public on the city’s website.
“The declaration of emergency remains in effect until City Council takes some sort of affirmative vote to make a finding that all of the emergency actions that are necessary to address the emergency have been taken,” said Lisa Robertson, acting city attorney.
As soon as the city is no longer within a declared state of local emergency, the council will no longer be able to continue the actions in the ordinance.
“You’d have to go back to business as usual, especially in connection with how you’re conducting your meetings,” Robertson said.
The Charlottesville School Board met in person for a closed work session on April 13 to review proposals from firms interested in leading the board’s superintendent search. The board was the first elected body in Charlottesville or Albemarle to meet in-person since meetings moved online early in the pandemic.
Tanesha Hudson, a community activist, urged the City Council to open its chambers so the public can attend council meetings in person. The last time the council met in person was March 25, 2020.
“You all really need to sit down and talk about opening up council chambers,” Hudson said. “There are ways that you can do it and maintain social distancing.”
During the matters by the public portion of the meeting, the council addressed ways in which the Charlottesville Police Department could intervene in mental health crises.
The discussion started after resident Trena Cooper brought up her concerns. Cooper, a public housing resident, said she witnessed a person whom she believed to be mentally disturbed and under the influence of drugs screaming in her residential building for around two or three hours. She said that while five police officers and an ambulance showed up to the scene, the officers allowed the person to go back inside the residence.
“I feared for my safety and my kids’ safety,” Cooper said. “They let this gentleman yell to the top of his lungs, and did not take him away from here. They let him go back in there knowing that he was on some type of drugs.”
She asked the police department to develop a protocol to deal with similar situations.
Police Chief RaShall Brackney said she could not speak to the specific incident that Cooper described, but said it is important to create systems to respond to these types of crises, which will take time.
“You’ll hear me say over and over we may have resources, but we don’t have capacity, or we may have resources and we don’t have legislative authority. So we might want to consider what those balances look like when someone is asking for police response,” she said.
Brackney said that the Senate Judiciary Committee under Sen. Cory Booker is discussing police involvement in mental health crisis response and has asked the Charlottesville Police Department to weigh in because of prior work the department has done.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker said that while she understood Cooper’s frustration and empathized with her, she was glad that in this situation the person was not taken to jail, and said the city and the police department have been trying to figure out how to handle those situations without sending people who are nonviolent and may need medical assistance to jail.
“It sounds like the officer may have been patient through a process that was unsettling for the individual, probably the officers, and community members,” Walker said. “These are the type of situations that we’re trying to figure out how people don’t end up in jail over, and what that looks like where the individual needs and the community needs are served.”
Councilors Sena Magill and Lloyd Snook have been working on a mental health task force with mental health experts and recipients of mental health services to figure out what a mental health crisis response program would look like in Charlottesville.
“It’s very complicated, regretfully. I wish there was an easy black and white answer to some of this,” Magill said. “If it’s a mental health emergency, an officer is trying to make the decision if the person is a threat to themselves or others. And that … can be scary to be around, and can cause someone to be very scared. How do we start navigating that? It’s hard.”
Snook said all city police officers have had de-escalation training and crisis intervention training.
“This is not a case where we’re sending out officers who are oblivious to the psychological issues there,” Snook said. “I personally look at this as an instance of the Charlottesville police perhaps displaying exactly the kind of restraint that the reformers want them to display.”
Earlier in the month, Snook told The Daily Progress that he hoped the Marcus Alert bill would provide more guidance for creating a mental health crisis response system.
The bill was named for Marcus-David Peters, a Black man who was shot and killed by Richmond police in 2018 while having a mental health crisis.
Snook said Charlottesville is also working to be in compliance with the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 by July 2022 by creating a suicide prevention hotline and response effort.
“We’ve got both federal pressures and state pressures to revise how we do this, and it’s going to take a fair amount of work to do it so we do it effectively,” Snook said. “Certainly by a year from now, we want to be in a position to really have a solution.”