The Bensalem Township Police Department is training two social workers to act as co-responders with officers on mental health calls.
Bensalem Director of Public Safety Fred Harran says similar programs will soon start “popping up” across the country. And when they do, he believes the commonwealth and the nation will look to Bensalem as the example.
The initiative comes after a long year of civil unrest and conversations on police reform. In Harran’s eyes, police officers have become overwhelmed.
“There are about 700,000 police officers that respond to 53 to 63 million citizen contacts a year,” said Harran. “That’s a lot of citizen contacts. And mental health continues to be one of our major responses.”
Harran cited statistics that about half of offenders with mental health issues will reoffend after serving their sentences. Bucks County is currently working to develop a mental health court to stop the revolving door.
This new pilot program builds on these efforts.
Walter Bynum and Rachel Agosto are training right now. And they’re hitting the streets on December 14, 2020.
“I’m really excited to be a part of this and bridge the gap between 911 calls and social services,” said Agosto.
“I feel the same way,” said Bynum. “I think that we’re at a time now where a lot of publicity is being pressed on police officers and their interactions with the community. We’re here to take some of that weight off the police officers to make sure everyone gets home safe.”
The social workers will go to the scene just a few seconds or minutes behind officers depending on the type of call. Once there, they can help to de-escalate the situation and build a relationship with the person in crisis.
“They’re going to be working out of our police station and responding to 911 calls along with police or moments after. Not hours after, not days after, not weeks after. Moments after to get people the help they need.”
Harran said the police officers in his department are excited for the initiative.
“I know out of any municipality in Bucks County, this is going to take off in Bensalem and be successful.”
Bucks County is footing the bill. The Board of County Commissioners agreed to provide $400,000 total for the two year pilot.
Commissioner Chair Diane Ellis-Marseglia says this is not defunding the police, it is re-funding them. Bensalem Mayor Joe DiGirolamo echoed the sentiment.
“These co-responders are probably the most significant thing we can do to keeping our communities safe and healthy, and to keeping our police safe and healthy in the future,” said Ellis-Marseglia.
District Attorney Matt Weintraub says the social workers are making a list of people who frequently make mental health calls to build relationships with them. The goal is to prevent any future incidents similar to ones which led to unrest over the summer.
“There will be no defunding of any police as a result of this program,” said Weintraub. “These are additional funds that are going to be apportioned so that the police and our co-responders can work in conjunction with each other.”
Part of being a new program means not all the details are completely ironed out. Officials say the co-responders will do some learning on the job as to help to act in certain situations.
Additionally, the safety of officers and the co-responders is the priority. Officers will still be in control of when a call feels unsafe.