Philadelphia police and behavioral health officials will implement a pilot “co-responder unit” program in which a health-care supports a police officer to assist mental health emergencies.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the pilot will launch within weeks, and units will operate during the day across a swath of the city that includes Kensington, parts of North Philadelphia, and Center City. Police Staff Inspector Francis Healy explained these areas have “the most need based on the data.”
Healy said the co-responder units are part of a broader approach to crisis response in which dispatchers can tap a variety of resources to respond to a call based on how they assess the risk. Late last year, police introduced a new 911 script they say helps dispatchers better identify a mental health crisis.
Healy said teams are training to navigate the relationship between officer and civilian provider. He said the officers involved in the pilot, who will wear “a khaki-type uniform” are among the 2,700 cops who have undergone 40-hour crisis-intervention training. The regimen is voluntary, Healy said, as some studies have shown better outcomes in police attitudes when they “self-select” to be trained.
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The city and some disability advocates have welcomed Philadelphia’s pilot program, saying it will connect residents to services, divert people from the criminal justice system, and de-escalate potentially volatile situations.
Social workers instead of police
However other opinions about the mental health assistance program claim the model does not go deep enough and advocate removing police entirely, sending social workers and clinicians instead.
Kee Tobar, director of racial equity and inclusion at Community Legal Services, said while she supports the pilot as a step forward, the long-term goal should be non-law enforcement units that can request police only when “extremely necessary.”
The co-responder model for mental health emergencies has been adopted in cities including Los Angeles and San Antonio, and advocates have pushed it for years as a way to reduce police interactions with people in crisis. A quarter of people fatally shot by U.S. law enforcement since 2015 had a mental illness, according to the Washington Post.