Bucks County pilots a ‘humanity-based’ policing approach with social workers

Bucks County officials speak during a press conference on Dec. 3, 2020, announcing a new program where social workers trained in crisis intervention work with police officers. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Bucks County officials speak during a press conference on Dec. 3, 2020, announcing a new program where social workers trained in crisis intervention work with police officers. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Bucks County is launching an experimental program aimed at keeping people with mental illness out of the criminal justice system.

The effort, which is starting with a two-year, county-funded pilot program in Bensalem, will bring two trained social workers onto the staff in the Bensalem Police Department. Soon, they’ll start joining police officers on calls that are deemed likely to involve people with mental health issues, or respond to those calls soon after.

Fred Harran, Bensalem’s Director of Public Safety, says he’s been thinking seriously about how police officers handle mental health after seeing incidents “all over the country regarding police and use of force.”

“The question is asked… ‘Why were the police called? Why weren’t these people being helped?’” Harran said. “We hear over and over again all the mental health issues that many of these folks have had. That stops today here in Bensalem.”

In the months since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May and a national outcry for police reform followed, many towns, cities and states have discussed programs much like this one, where social workers trained in crisis intervention operate alongside police officers in an effort to avert violence.

Philadelphia, for instance, has a number of crisis intervention programs aimed at de-escalating incidents involving mental health crises — though they have faltered sometimes in practice, with disastrous consequences. Crisis responders weren’t contacted when officers responded to and ultimately killed Walter Wallace, a young man with mental illness, in October.

Matt Weintraub, the district attorney for Bucks County, said he got the idea from a similar program that Dauphin County piloted in and around Harrisburg in June.

He says he sees it not as a way to “defund” or circumvent the police, but as a way to give them more support.

Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I think this defies the traditional labels that you always hear, whether this is a ‘progressive program,’ or this is the product of ‘defunding the police’ … it’s none of those things,” he said. “This program is humanity-based.”

That was a concept Bucks officials stressed over and over: theirs is a program aimed at rethinking policing, but it shouldn’t be lumped in with a broader, national movement to fundamentally reshape or, as some have advocated, totally dissolve traditional police departments.

“This is the opposite of what’s going around the country, ‘defunding the police,’” Bensalem Mayor Joe DiGirolamo said. “Our police are one of the most important parts of our community. We have to make sure we support them in every way we can.”

The program will bring two crisis intervention-trained social workers, Walter Bynum and Rachel Agosto, on to county staff to work alongside police. Officials acknowledged, two people won’t be able to work 24 hours a day or respond to every mental health call police get.

Instead, they’ll go to calls when they can, with the goal of de-escalating each one to the point where police can leave entirely. They will also review mental health calls they can’t go on and offer feedback to officers.

Bynum and Agosto’s safety is a top priority, Harran said, and both will have bulletproof vests at their disposal if they want to use them.

Both said they are excited about their new roles and feel confident the partnership will work well.

“We’re at a time now when a lot of publicity is being pressed on police officers and their interactions with people in the community,” Bynum said. “We’re here to take some of that weight off of police officers so we can make sure that everyone goes home safely.”

The program will cost $200,000 per year for the two years of the pilot — money that is coming out of a human services block grant Bucks County gets from the state.

County officials say if it goes well, they’ll look for ways to make it a permanent part of the county budget.

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