October 5, 2022

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A $650,000 grant will allow mental health professionals to accompany law enforcement on 911 calls

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HAVERFORD – U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon joined local police chiefs, county District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, Delaware County Council members and other officials Monday in announcing a $650,000 grant to fund a new pilot program for “Mobile Crisis Teams” that will assist police in responding to situations where a person may be suffering from a mental health emergency.

“We know from statistics that about one in four people who are in the criminal justice system have mental health issues because we’re not adequately funding mental health supports outside the criminal justice system, so this is a way to try to start redressing that balance instead of foisting all of our problems on our schools or our police forces,” said Scanlon at a meeting on the funds Monday inside the Haverford Township Municipal Building.

The grant, one of 10 projects in the district that Scanlon was able to secure through the federal appropriations process, will pay for training at the 911 Center and for police officers, but also for mental health professionals who can respond with law enforcement on emergency calls where someone may be suffering from a crisis.

The Mobile Crisis Teams are expected to be stationed at Delaware County Emergency Services in the Lima section of Middletown, ready for dispatch. Once on scene, they will be able to direct people suffering from a crisis to a treatment center on a prioritized basis, rather than being detained or arrested by law enforcement. The proposed impact is two-fold: It removes law enforcement from the equation, freeing them up to perform other duties, while diverting people who need help toward treatment and away from jail.

“When we have a resident who’s in crisis for mental health issues, no one wants to see that person end up in jail,” said county Council Vice Chair Elaine Paul Schaefer. “They’re not going to get services. It’s going to cost the county more money to have them in jail and it doesn’t do anyone any good. This type of intervention and being able to identify a mental health crisis and situation, and then help that resident get services and not end up in jail – everyone agrees (with that), everyone at the table.”

County Director of Emergency Services Tim Boyce said his office will also train operators working the 911 switchboard on understanding and identifying calls that may include a mental health component. This will allow them to paint a better picture for uniformed first responders, who can be joined by mental health professionals.

“Our police do take de-escalation training, many of those officers, but they have to drive away and that’s what we’re trying to address,” said Boyce. “We train our officers to de-escalate this, but they’re not solving the problem, they’re leaving after a little bit, so I think that’s really the value the officer is looking for, is lessons learned in how to calm the situation but (also) to provide genuine help.”

Stollsteimer said this was a top priority for police in the area, noting five police chiefs were on hand for the meeting Monday, including Haverford Chief John F. Viola, who acts as the law enforcement representative to the county’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board.

“He (Viola), on behalf of the chiefs, has been asking ever since I took office what we can do as a group to make sure there are more mental health services for our residents,” said Stollsteimer. “We in law enforcement come into contact every single day with people who need mental health services – not the kind that they’re going to get in a jail, but the kind that they can actually get to make them better so we don’t have to have them become stuck in the criminal justice system.”

Viola said that despite extensive training, officers are not always fully equipped to deal with mental health issues and simply cannot be experts in everything. Sometimes, the mere presence of a uniformed officer can actually make things worse, he added.

“Having experts come in to help us frees us up to do other work, but moves us away from that situation, which really, really calms things down, so it’s a big, big step forward and we’re very appreciative,” he said.

Viola added that there are times when an officer has to return to a call that blew up again a few hours after they left, because they are really only able to calm the situation for a period when they’re on scene. He said having a professional who can stay on scene and get someone the help they need would rectify that issue.

Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt said his department handles the most mental health-related calls in the county and likewise attested to the potential good having those specialists at the scene with officers could do.

“We welcome it,” he said. “We look forward to growing this and we think it’s going to be a huge bonus for law enforcement and for those that are suffering from a mental health crisis, that they can get that true help that they need right there at the moment, at that time, and to keep them out of the criminal justice system.”

Crozer Health has signaled that it is closing numerous mental health related services in the county next month, including the Crisis Center at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland. Schaefer said the county has been working “in overdrive” to ensure that there is no gap in services for the county’s most vulnerable populations or those who might be in crisis.

“Our Human Services Department is working literally 24/7 at this point to make sure that our crisis center – wherever it will be in the future – is staffed and that there is somewhere to support these residents that get identified through the criminal justice and public safety process,” she said.

Stollsteimer said Delaware County Human Services Director Sandy Garrison has been doing yeoman’s work on preparing a request for proposal for mental health professionals interested in the program, which also asks providers for ideas on implementation strategies. Schaefer indicated these will be evaluated over the course of the program.

Chester Police Commissioner Steven Gretsky, Marple Police Chief Brandon Graeff and Folcroft Police Chief William Bair were also at the meeting.

“I think with the leadership here, it puts Delaware County at the forefront of 21st century policing,” said Graeff. “We all have a common interest and that’s truly helping people. They’re our neighbors, they’re out residents, they’re our family members, and we all have that common interest, and I think this is a first step.”

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