Bucks County authorities on Thursday announced a new program that aims to pair Bensalem Township police officers with social workers and divert people in need of social services away from the criminal justice system.
The program, a two-year pilot effort, aims to reduce the amount of time police spend on social service-related calls, authorities said. Data on the program will be collected to determine whether it is effective and should be expanded.
Bucks officials’ decision to pair police with social workers in certain cases comes amid a movement to reform the way officers respond to 911 calls.
”We respond to drug addiction ... to homelessness, ... to hoarding complaints, elderly issues, children issues, family issues, neighbor issues, and of course mental health issues, which unfortunately continues to grow and grow and grow,” Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran said during an afternoon news conference at the township building attended by Bucks County Commissioners Diane Ellis-Marseglia, Bob Harvie, and Gene DiGirolamo, Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub, Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo, and the two newly hired co-responders.
Officials decided to launch the new initiative after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May, Harran said.
The pilot program will cost $400,000 over the two years and will be funded by the county, authorities said.
Marseglia, who is also a clinical social worker, said calls to defund the police have been “very upsetting to me ... because the truth is we need to refund the police.”
She said officers needed “the correct tools” to do their jobs well, including “co-responders as one of the tools in that tool belt.”
As part of the program, two county social workers will be based out of the Bensalem Police Department, the largest in the county with more than 100 officers.
The social workers will assist police in dealing with mental health, domestic, and substance-abuse issues and in certain situations will go out to the scene with police. The goal is also to divert some of the cases away from arrests and instead connect people in need to services such as mental health counseling, drug rehabilitation, youth counseling, or shelter or housing programs.
Harran said that in cases where it’s determined one of the co-responders will head to a scene, police will first secure the scene, then the co-responder will come seconds or minutes later. Both will have access to police radios, he said.
In Philadelphia, a new city program launched in October to place a behavioral health specialist in the police dispatch center aimed to better identify 911 calls that involve mental health issues and offer services to those residents — instead of arresting them. The initiative includes a co-responder program, in which clinical staff and police can work together to respond to such calls.
But the program only operated during limited hours, and the assigned counselor was not in the radio room at the time of the Oct. 26 calls to 911 by a neighbor and family members of Walter Wallace Jr. asking for police to respond to reports that he was fighting his parents and hitting them at the family’s West Philadelphia home.
Two Philadelphia police officers who arrived outside the home fatally shot Wallace, 27, who was armed with a knife as he walked toward them and didn’t drop the weapon after repeatedly being ordered to do so.
The 911 dispatch recordings that were made public included no mention of Wallace’s mental health history, but his family has said that he suffered from mental health issues. The executive director of a West Philadelphia mental health crisis response center has also said that Wallace had regularly used the outpatient center’s services and had recently resumed treatment before his death.