In response to West Philadelphia police-involved shooting, Cephas will introduce legislation that would require local police departments to establish Behavioral Health Crisis Response Units

HARRISBURG, Oct. 30 – State Rep. Morgan Cephas, D-Phila., will soon introduce legislation that would require police departments across the commonwealth to establish Behavioral Health Crisis Response Units that could respond to emergency calls in lieu of or as a complement to law enforcement when the nature of the call is related to a behavioral health issue. 

Cephas’ proposal comes days after the police shooting death of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old West Philadelphia man whose family had called 911 because he was experiencing a mental breakdown. Responding officers fired 14 rounds at him, killing him, while he was standing in the street holding a knife. 

“When someone calls 911 because their family member, their neighbor or their friend is experiencing a mental health crisis, is battling addiction or dealing with homelessness, they shouldn’t have to fear that the person they want to help will be killed by police,” Cephas said. “Unfortunately, that is a reality. It’s what too many families, including the family of Walter Wallace, have experienced in Philadelphia and across our commonwealth. But it doesn’t have to be that way.” 

Recent tragedies involving law enforcement have led to calls from many to defund police, and instead allocate that money to public health initiatives. Since the 1990s, police budgets have continued to increase despite crime rates remaining stagnant. At the same time, funding for public health has seen sharp decreases. Police officers who respond to calls involving behavioral health or housing related crises should have a unique skill set that is distinct from that provided in traditional law enforcement trainings. But many officers do not get that training and therefore do not have those skills. 

Cephas said her legislation would address that disparity. Behavioral Health Crisis Response Teams Units (BHRUTs) established within local police departments would be the first responders for emergency calls involving mental health crises, homelessness and/or substance abuse. Similar programs, like Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon, have saved taxpayers an average of $8.5 million a year in public safety costs alone, in part by responding to and ultimately resolving 17% of the city police department’s overall call volume. In 2019, out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, police backup was requested only 150 times. 

“The time is now to establish and fully fund a program that can fill this gap and truly help communities in need,” Cephas said.