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Police in the Philly region are forging partnerships with social workers to better handle mental health crises

"A person experiencing a mental health crisis doesn’t need to go to jail — they need support," said Walter Bynum, a co-responder who has been working in Bensalem since last year.

IMPACT members (from left) Autumn Caraballo, Kaitlyn Friess, and Christina Lemma, partner with police officers in Pine Hill, including officer Martin Brennan, to better handle calls for assistance involving mental illness. The IMPACT program uses a co-responder model that pairs police with social workers in an attempt to avoid violence or criminal charges.
IMPACT members (from left) Autumn Caraballo, Kaitlyn Friess, and Christina Lemma, partner with police officers in Pine Hill, including officer Martin Brennan, to better handle calls for assistance involving mental illness. The IMPACT program uses a co-responder model that pairs police with social workers in an attempt to avoid violence or criminal charges.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Earlier this year, Pine Hill police were faced with a difficult situation: A veteran struggling with PTSD had barricaded himself inside his home in the Camden County town of about 11,000 and was threatening to harm himself.

It was a tense situation that played out over several hours, and it could have ended in tragedy.

But it didn’t. Trained social workers arrived after the officers secured the scene and spoke with the man, listened to his concerns, and assessed how to best help him. He ended the day in a mental health facility receiving treatment, rather than in a jail cell.

That success, according to Pine Hill Police Chief Christopher Winters, was just one example of how the department’s partnership with Volunteers of America’s IMPACT social services program has bolstered police response in the last few years.

“From a law enforcement perspective, our mission is to make people feel safe,” Winters said. “And by addressing all these underlying issues that in the past were put to law enforcement to try and figure out, we’re able to truly connect our residents to the services that they need.”

That “co-responder” model, which pairs trained social workers with officers on calls involving people in mental health or addiction crises, has become increasingly popular across the country after a rash of police shootings in 2020 — some of them fatal — and the vocal opposition and community outrage that followed.

In the Philadelphia region, at least three such programs are underway, two of them developed and expanded in the last year alone.

Advocates and law enforcement officials say these initiatives can prevent violence and death, and plug the gaps in safety nets available for people struggling with a wide spectrum of issues that a police response alone can’t fix.

A watershed moment for that progressive approach was the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. by Philadelphia police in October 2020. Wallace, 27, was fatally shot by two city officers when he approached them while holding a knife, after his family had called 911 to report he was having a mental breakdown.

» READ MORE: Walter Wallace Jr., 27, a ‘family man’ with many mental health crises and encounters with police

People took to the streets in protest, and the shooting sparked debate over how police handle emergency calls when mental illness is involved. Wallace’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit and demanded that the city equip more officers with Tasers and provide better training in deescalation. City officials agreed to those terms and also paid the family $2.5 million to settle the case..

Not long after Wallance’s death, the Philadelphia Police Department piloted a co-responder program in the East and Central police divisions, which cover North Philadelphia, Kensington, and Center City.

City spokesperson Kevin Lessard said four units — each with a police officer and a mental health clinician — have been operating for about a year during the daytime Monday through Friday. In addition, two mental health professionals provide follow-up services to people assisted by co-responder units.

Since April, there have been 400 instances in which co-responders helped divert people to behavioral health services, and more than 95% of them ended without an arrest, according to Lessard.

He said the city plans to expand the program in coming months. By spring, he said, six teams will be in place, one in each of the city’s police divisions. By summer, the goal is for some teams to operate on either a second shift or over the weekend.

» READ MORE: Following other cities, Philly will soon send specialists alongside cops to some mental health calls

Beyond the city, Wallace’s death has helped to shape how some departments handle difficult calls.

In Bensalem, Walter Bynum has interacted with 205 residents since November 2020, when he was hired as the first full-time co-responder in Bucks County. Of that group, Bynum said, 175 have been connected to various social services, including housing assistance and addiction treatment.

“If you’re thinking ‘That’s not much,’” Bynum, 38, said in a recent interview, “put it this way: That’s 175 people in Bensalem that needed additional support that didn’t know how to access it, and weren’t getting it before this program started.”

The program has been so successful that the county hired two more co-responders earlier this month and expanded the model to nearby Falls and Middletown Townships. Additional positions have been approved, but not yet filled, for co-responders in the Bristol Township, Bristol Borough and Tullytown police departments.

Bynum worked as a behavioral specialist before joining the program, which places him in the Bensalem police station during his shift, ready to be dispatched as needed. The bulk of his work centers on conversations, he said. He takes the time to talk to the people involved in each 911 call, from teenagers to the elderly, building a connection that, for many of them, has been missing from their lives.

“A person experiencing a mental health crisis doesn’t need to go to jail; they need support,” he said. “If they just go to jail, they’re in a population of people that may have the same issues they have, without the resources needed to address that.”

Some of his dealings with the people he is called to help last a few minutes, while others stretch for hours. Sometimes, people resist his help, but he stays at it. He follows up over the course of 60 days, in the hopes of convincing them to take advantage of services that could benefit them.

“The main focus is to try to understand why or how that person arrived in that situation,” Bynum said. “We can’t force a person to accept our support, but we can build a relationship with them, so they feel comfortable seeking support or contacting me if they do have an emergency, so they don’t call the police.”

Policing experts say the idea of using social workers to assist police has been around since the 1970s, when programs popped up in California and parts of the Midwest. Amy Watson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has spent much of her career examining how people with mental illness interact with police, said a decline in state and federal funding for mental health and addiction services has led to an overreliance on police to handle these issues.

“Police agencies are under a lot of pressure to do something, so they’re really looking to do something,” she said. “We’ve gotten to the point where police are the default providers because no one else was available, not because of a specific need to have a police officer involved.”

Pine Hill Police Chief Winters understands that. It’s why, in 2019, he partnered with Volunteers of America for his department’s co-responder program. Social workers from VOA have assisted his officers with more than just 911 calls: They’ve helped reduce truancy and even gotten families struggling to pay their bills assistance with payment plans and subsidies.

Word of the partnership spread quickly, and co-responders are now working with 19 police departments in South Jersey, according to Amanda Leese, senior vice president of reentry and navigator programs for VOA.

“If you look at this from a community standpoint, it benefits the health and well-being of the community in general,” Winters said. “If you’re stabilizing households or individuals, across the spectrum of what those needs are, that ultimately leads to a healthy, stable community.”