Cephas seeks to establish Behavioral Health Crisis Response Units in Pa.

HARRISBURG, April 26 – On the six-month anniversary of the tragic death of Walter Wallace, Jr, state Rep. Morgan Cephas, D-Phila. announced that she is working to 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’ first introduced the idea immediately following 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 in October 2020. Responding officers fired 14 rounds at him, killing him, while he was standing in the street holding a knife. 

“Today, as we remember the life of our neighbor – a father, son, and friend – we must check in and ensure we continue the work,” said Cephas. “When someone calls 911 because their family member or neighbor 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.

“Just a week after the verdict was announced in the police involved killing of George Floyd, we are hopeful that by making the right investments and demanding accountability, we can make our communities safer for all.”

Cephas said her legislation would help to ensure that behavioral health related emergency calls get the response they need by requiring municipalities to imbed Behavioral Health Crisis Response Units (BHRUs) within their law enforcement departments. 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 legislation would also establish a funding stream within the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency to support the initiative.

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