ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Allentown City Council on Wednesday night met to discuss how to proceed with ways to divert noncriminal calls to reduce interactions with police.
It's a discussion that's also being held across the nation, as communities search for alternative responses to 911 calls related to mental health and substance abuse issues while looking to improve and reimagine policing and public safety.
City resident Julie Thomases, a member of the Promise Neighborhoods Lehigh Valley Board of Directors and its program coordinator for Inside Allentown, gave a detailed presentation at the outset of the meeting.
In it, she noted that the 911 response system sends police to all 911 emergency calls, whether they involve violence or criminal activity or deal with nonviolent, noncriminal issues such as mental health, homelessness, intoxication or substance abuse.
Too often, police have to deal with nonviolent and noncriminal situations without mental health training, Thomases said.
About 10% of the police department’s 92,000 calls in 2020 and 100,000 calls in 2019 were related to mental health issues, she noted.
Thomases said there is a growing national trend to implement alternatives to police response to nonviolent, noncriminal 911 calls. She offered examples of these initiatives that could be replicated in Allentown.
One such effort is the Oregon-based Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), which for 30 years has provided a staff of unarmed outreach workers and medics trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation to handle related situations.
Embraced by police weary of dealing with repeat calls for the same problems, programs like these result in lower costs to taxpayers, help people in need and build trust in communities, Thomases said.
Several counties in Pennsylvania, including Bucks and Dauphin, have already started to implement such changes, she noted.
Members of council shared a nearly unanimous agreement to move forward on a comprehensive plan to change how emergency calls are handled and signaled that Lehigh County, which manages the 911 system, must take a lead role.
Council President Julio Guridy said the city is in the early stages of its discussions as it continues a dialogue with the county, hospitals, police chief Glenn Granitz Jr. and other stakeholders. The issue will be what works best for Allentown, whether it's a CAHOOTS-style program, a hybrid or something completely new.
Council can motivate people, but it can't fund a potential program, Guridy said, adding that the county needs to step forward as a key financial source. He also suggested that public-private partnerships might play a role in funding a new system.
Granitz said he has spent time with Thomases, expressed appreciation for her passion in seeking change and indicated that it aligns with his. He said there are innovative policing programs that can be done quickly and easily, with the support from the county.
Council Vice President Cynthia Mota said a modified 911 system would help citizens with mental health issues get help instead of sending them to prison. She also said the county's help is needed along with a broad collaboration.
Councilperson Joshua Siegel said it would behoove council to retain a consultant to guide stakeholders and perhaps lead the city to something entirely new.
Guridy said he was pleased that Granitz is already talking with potential partners, attending meetings and exploring new law enforcement programs that have been enacted in other parts of the country.
"We all want safety," Guridy said. "If we don't have safety, we don't have anything."