‘Thinking outside of the box’: Delco leaders plan to dispatch mental health experts alongside police

After crucial federal funding was finally secured, Delco officials plan to dispatch mental health experts alongside police officers during mental health calls.

U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon recently secured $650,000 in federal funding to support the creation of mobile crisis teams in Delco. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon recently secured $650,000 in federal funding to support the creation of mobile crisis teams in Delco. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

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U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon met with Delaware County officials Monday to mull over plans for new county-wide mobile crisis teams who would be dispatched alongside law enforcement when someone is suffering from mental illness.

The goal is to ensure that mental health crises in Delco do not escalate into deadly situations. Scanlon secured $650,000 in federal funding to support this program back on March 9 as part of the appropriations package.

Following the closed door discussion Monday inside of the Haverford Township Building, Scanlon presented a symbolic check to the Delco officials just before addressing members of the media.

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U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon presents the symbolic check to Delaware County officials. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“We know that from statistics about one in four people who are in the current criminal justice system have mental health issues, because we’re not adequately funding mental health supports outside the criminal justice system. So, this is a way to try to start redressing that balance — instead of foisting all of our problems on either our schools or our police forces,” Scanlon said.

This is the first time in 10 years that members of Congress have been able to specifically designate money for their districts. There were nearly a dozen successful applications for a Community Project Financing grant.

“It’s great to be able to have county folks who are interested in implementing this kind of system in our region to show that it’s something that can work,” Scanlon said.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said that law enforcement leadership was thrilled to have the opportunity to come up with a strategy to address a problem that affects all of their communities.

“When the Congresswoman asked us if there were projects we would like to see funded, this was the number one priority,” Stollsteimer said.

He added that ever since being elected in 2019, several police chiefs have been asking what the county can do to provide more mental health support for its citizens.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsetimer says that a project addressing mental health was a ‘number one priority.’ (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“We in law enforcement come into contact every single day with people who need mental health services — not the kind that they’re going to get in a jail but the kind that they can actually get to make them better, so we don’t have to have them become stuck in our criminal justice system,” Stollsteimer said.

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Like elsewhere in the country, mental health incidents in Delco are also on the rise. According to data from the county Department of Emergency Services, there were roughly 2,900 incidents in 2020 and that number jumped to about 3,200 in 2021.

Once established, the mobile crisis teams would be stationed at Delco’s emergency services headquarters. After arriving on the scene with officers, this project would divert people into treatment, “with a prioritized admission.”

It would also serve another purpose, according to Haverford Township Police Chief John Viola — lessening the burden on law enforcement officers who are not equipped to handle such situations.

Haverford Township Police Chief John Viola says that having mental health experts available will free up officers to do other necessary work. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“When an officer arrives at a scene and a person’s in crisis, sometimes a uniform makes it worse, just because people are afraid, or whatever is going on with them. So having experts come in to help us frees us up to do other work, but moves us away from that situation, which really, really calms things down,” Viola said.

Upper Darby Township is by far the largest municipality in Delco. And because of that, police superintendent Timothy Bernhardt said that the department responds to the most mental health calls.

The 69th Street area, in particular, is a major source of those incidents, Bernhardt said.

“It’s a huge tool for us to be able to have mental health specialists that are going to be assisting us in dealing with these mental health situations. We welcome it,” Bernhardt said.

(From left to right) Delco District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, and Haverford Township Police Chief John Viola discuss mobile crisis teams. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

The county is now in the process of putting out a request for proposals to hire a provider who will actually perform the services. Stollsteimer emphasized that the RFP process is structured in a way to give the providers room to come up with their own ideas on how best to put together a one-year pilot program. There is no definitive timeline for the rollout of the mobile crisis teams.

However, the announcement of the funding comes at a time of uncertainty within Crozer Health, the four-hospital system in Delaware County.

With inpatient mental and behavioral health services set to be cut in June, county officials are working in “overdrive” to respond to the service shutdowns.

“This is coming at an opportune time where we’re also putting together that strategy of how we’re going to replace the Crozer services. But, I want to assure you that our Human Services Department is working literally 24/7 at this point, to make sure that our Crisis Center — wherever it will be in the future — is staffed and that there is somewhere to support these residents that get identified through the criminal justice and public safety process,” Delaware County Councilmember Elaine Schaefer said.

Delco has 44 different police departments, big and small, but Stollsteimer is confident that there is a model that can help them all.

He attributes that to “the modern way [they] do things here in the public space and Delaware County.”

“It’s a collaboration between law enforcement community and county council with our Congresswoman. We’re thinking outside of the box. We established a public health department, we deprivatized our prison, we’re going ahead of the curve trying to provide more mental health services to people through law enforcement in any way possible,” Stollsteimer said.

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