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Sen. Bob Casey cites shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. in pushing bills to divert 911 calls for mental health crises

The plan from Sen. Bob Casey would divert non-emergency 911 calls to social service providers, aiming to bring alternative responses to people with disabilities or in mental health crisis.

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) has introduced bills to reform the way emergency responders answer calls involving people with mental health crises.
Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) has introduced bills to reform the way emergency responders answer calls involving people with mental health crises.Read moreBASTIAAN SLABBERS / For the Inquirer

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) introduced two bills Wednesday aimed at steering some emergency calls away from law enforcement and toward social-service providers, hoping to avert encounters like the one that ended with Philadelphia police shooting and killing Walter Wallace Jr.

The proposals, Casey said, would divert “non-criminal, non-fire, non-medical emergency” calls from 911 systems and into state and regional 211 systems, which offer a range of social services, including help for people facing mental health crises or those with disabilities. The bills, which are likely to face a difficult route to passage in a closely divided Congress, would also provide grants to strengthen those 211 systems and train law enforcement officers for encounters with people with disabilities.

“The problem is this: Protecting people with disabilities to connect them with the resources that they need and also to reduce demands on police, on law enforcement, to address non-criminal complaints,” Casey said in a virtual news conference. “It’s easy to describe this problem. It’s exceedingly more difficult to solve it, but we’ve got to try.”

Casey pointed to the October killing of Wallace in West Philadelphia as the latest example of a “tragedy” he hopes to prevent. Wallace was mentally distraught and wielding a knife when Philadelphia police were called Oct. 26. They ordered him to drop the knife, but when he didn’t and approached an officer, police shot him 14 times.

Casey also cited the similar police shootings of Ricardo Munoz in Lancaster in September and Osaze Osagie in State College in 2019. Each had mental illnesses, and each approached police with knives after officers responded to calls for help with apparent mental health episodes.

Kevin Ressler, executive director of the United Way of Lancaster County, said earlier intervention with Munoz, who was known to have mental health problems, could have led to a different outcome.

“That moment isn’t about whether or not it was justified or not, because that moment never should have happened,” Ressler said during the news conference. “That officer did not respond to that call thinking he was going to shoot and kill someone that day. That mother did not call thinking that her son would be shot and killed. That was not the resolution anyone wanted, but our system … made that moment happen.”

Other advocates on the call pointed to the challenges police face when confronting people with autism, or those who are deaf and cannot hear police commands, in arguing for bringing other professionals into the response.

Ressler said the 211 system in Lancaster County connects to 600 agencies that can provide different resources than the police, fire, and emergency medical teams that answer 911.

Such 211 systems, often led and funded by United Way affiliates but sometimes backed by state or local governments, are already available to nearly 95% the U.S. population and cover all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, according to the Federal Communications Commission. There are seven regional networks in Pennsylvania, Casey aides said.

Casey’s bill would provide federal grants to increase public awareness of those networks, train 911 operators to route nonemergency calls to 211, and standardize some of the practices used by the existing networks. For example, 211 collaboratives seeking grants under Casey’s bill would be required to include representatives for people with disabilities, groups fighting for racial and ethnic equality, and advocates for people experiencing homelessness.

The plan would provide $700 million in grants in its first two years for public awareness, training, staffing, and upgrading technology so 211 is accessible to people with disabilities. The grants would decrease to $300 million per year after that.

Casey said there is bipartisan support for the idea that police should not be called upon to resolve mental health crises. But he acknowledged that in a narrowly divided Senate, it’s likely to be a steep climb for his bill, and many others.

“There’s no escaping the challenge we face,” Casey said. “It’ll be difficult to pass legislation like this. Everything is difficult.”