Kinsey, Cephas introduce legislation for better response to behavioral crises

HARRISBURG, Nov. 1 – State Reps. Stephen Kinsey and Morgan Cephas, both D-Phila., have introduced legislation to authorize the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to administer county and regionally operated Crisis Call Centers and Behavioral Health Response Units to respond to calls regarding crises that arise due to mental health disorders, substance use disorders and homelessness.

The legislators said over the years, police have become the default first responders for individuals who are suffering from mental health crises, experiencing homelessness or living with substance use disorders.

This has often led to incidents that result in officers – who are not crisis specialists – killing or injuring a person who just needed help in a time of crisis. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in 2021 alone there were 104 people killed by police responding to reports of a person “behaving erratically or having a mental health crisis.”

“This legislation will allow for individuals with behavioral crisis training to address these issues with police assistance,” Kinsey said. “When someone is having a behavioral crisis of any kind, the response must be warranted by the action of the individual. This legislation would allow for the appropriate subjects to respond to behavioral crises and individuals having a crisis to get the help they need.”

“This legislation would tackle this issue at its root. We need specialists, trained individuals managing mental health crises. When we hear claims about police brutality, use of excessive force in cases of mental illness, often we only think of accountability,” Cephas said. “I agree, we need accountability, but that is not enough. We also need to improve the responses to mental health crises based on the needs of our communities. When it comes to mental health crises the use of traditional police tactics must be taken out of the equation. We have the opportunity to implement evidence-based best practices in communities across Pennsylvania.”

The Behavioral Health Response Units would be staffed by Emergency Medical Service personnel, crisis counselors and peer specialists who would provide individuals with immediate stabilization in cases of urgent medical need or psychological crisis, referrals to treatment when appropriate, and information on what resources are available to the person so they can access the help they need.