Colonial Behavioral Health is spearheading an initiative aimed at targeting services for people dealing with a mental health crisis.

The effort brings together police, deputies and dispatchers from James City, York, Williamsburg, Poquoson and the Williamsburg-James City Sheriff's Office as part of a crisis intervention team focused on improving interactions between law enforcement and people with mental illnesses. The College of William and Mary, Colonial Williamsburg, Eastern State Hospital and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of the Williamsburg Area are also participating. Colonial Behavioral Health (CBH), a public outpatient mental health agency, is leading the group.

A $40,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services will pay for a coordinator to launch the crisis intervention team. CBH has tapped retired Williamsburg Police Officer Jay Sexton to serve as the team's coordinator; he was hired earlier this year.

The project goal is to provide training to police and dispatchers on how to identify and assist someone having a mental health crisis in a way that reduces the potential for violence. The training also offers information on the state's laws and procedures for initiating a mental health evaluation and temporary detention order.

Joan Lucera, director of community relations for CBH, said the crisis intervention team essentially functions as a jail diversion program for people who have committed minor offenses.

Crisis intervention teams have gained traction in Virginia over the last 10 years. The Virginia Beach Community Services Board has established a team, as has the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board.

So far eight police officers from Williamsburg, Poquoson, York, James City, William and Mary and the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail have completed the 40-hour training program.

Sexton said he'd like to train at least two officers per shift in each of the police departments as crisis intervention team members. The ultimate goal would be to train about 25 percent of each of the participating police departments.

Long-term, CBH officials would like to develop a therapeutic assessment center, where police officers can take people for help and then return to their regular patrol. Currently the process of assessing and transporting someone can take police officers away from their regular duties for several hours.

Kathy Ricci, an emergency services specialist with CBH, said for a minor offense like stealing a candy bar, police can take the person into custody and request a mental health evaluation at the jail before obtaining an arrest warrant. Ricci said the person could be diverted to an psychiatric hospital. Once a person is charged, however, he or she cannot be diverted to a hospital.

Unlike in a psychiatric facility, where a person can be ordered to take medication, Lucera said jail inmates can choose not to take their psychiatric medications.

"Once someone with a mental illness in crisis gets in the jail system, they tend to spiral downward," she said.

Sexton said the crisis intervention team is aimed at avoiding jail for mentally ill people committing minor crimes like shoplifting or disorderly conduct, but for not for those who commit violent crimes.

"If they've committed a robbery or a serious crime of violence or used a weapon they're going to jail," he said. "It doesn't matter what kind of mental health issue they have."