Beginning tonight, if one of Elizabethtown police Chief Ed Cunningham’s officers gets dispatched for a mental health crisis, that officer will be able to call on a mental health therapist for assistance.
Not to follow up sometime next week, but in real-time.
The call the officer responds to might involve a person who sent a text expressing suicidal thoughts, prompting the recipient to call police — a not uncommon scenario, Cunningham said. The officer could wind up responding to any number of incidents, and there’s a good chance that a mental health crisis could be at the heart of the matter.
Of the roughly 2,000 calls Elizabethtown police responded to last year, 100 (or 5%) were initially dispatched as involving a mental health issue, according to Cunningham. Another several hundred calls were dispatched for other reasons, only to turn out to involve mental health.
Recognizing the need to ensure officers are able to respond appropriately, Elizabethtown and ten of the county’s two-dozen police departments will have on-call therapists available as part of a pilot program called Gateways. It’s aimed at “closing service gaps for individuals with mental health disorders,” according to Christopher Dreisbach, who founded Second Chance PA two years ago.
The pilot program uses mental health professionals working for Second Chance, a program that allows officers in participating departments to use their discretion not to charge people for minor offenses such as possession of drug paraphernalia — provided they go into treatment.
Dreisbach said he hopes this weekend’s test-run of Gateways is successful and leads to an expansion.
The need for trained mental health professionals to respond to certain situations in which police traditionally have responded has long been clear.
For several months, Cunningham said, he, Dreisbach and others, including District Attorney Heather Adams, have been discussing what might be done. It was at a police crisis intervention training program at which Dreisbach was a participant that things got moving — fast.
“They were frustrated with the lack of tools in their toolbelt to help with mental health issues,” Dreisbach said.
After the program, Dreisbach and West Lampeter Chief Brian Wiczkowski talked for about an hour about the issue.
Wiczkowski said they should do something.
“Their frustration was really boiling over and they really want to help people who are struggling with mental health,” Dreisbach said.
So they whipped together the pilot program. That crisis training where they had the conversation was last week, Dreisbach said.
Dreisbach explains how the three-day test will work:
Starting at 5 p.m. tonight, five of Second Chance’s mental health therapists will be on call, 24-7 through about 7 a.m. Monday.
If officers at any of the 11 participating departments determine that a particular call they are on requires a mental health professional’s assistance, they will call for a therapist to help or take the situation over.
As with the Lancaster police department’s social worker program, Gateways is not for situations where danger to the therapist is clearly present or certain crimes are in progress.
That means Gateways would not be employed for a situation such as that of Ricardo Muñoz, who was fatally shot last September by a Lancaster police officer responding to a domestic disturbance call. While Muñoz's family called 911 seeking mental health care for him, his sister told a dispatcher in one call that he was being aggressive, had punched the inside of a car and was trying to break into his mother's home.
“We have full faith in the officers in Lancaster County that they're not going to send our responders into danger,” Dreisbach said.
Still, because any situation can turn unexpectedly, Dreisbach said the therapists will be issued bullet-resistant vests and first-aid equipment.
Next week, Dreisbach and others will evaluate how it went in hopes of creating a permanent program.
Dreisbach said a wild guess for the cost of running the program this weekend is probably around $10,000, including salaries and training.
“I’m willing to invest this money in Lancaster County because I believe we need an investment in mental health,” Dreisbach said.
A permanent program would need dedicated funding. Adams, the district attorney, is looking for grants should the program expand.
“All stakeholders in the criminal justice system agree that an innovative solution is needed to address the lack of resources available to law enforcement when dealing with individuals suffering from mental health disabilities. The goal is to connect people with services rather than incarcerating them,” she said.
Cunningham said the conversation about the need for such a program wasn’t borne of one particular thing.
Events over the past year, however, have had police in Lancaster County asking how they can do better.
“A lot of what the public is asking for (in terms of police reform) we already have in motion in Lancaster County,” he said. “Taking everything that happened last year, we’re taking everything into account and looking under every rock and asking, what can we do better and how can we better serve our communities?”
He and Adams lauded Dreisbach’s efforts.
“When it comes time to really get the ball rolling, Chris is probably one of the biggest supporters of law enforcement in helping us do our job better and better,” Cunningham said.
Dreisbach has an insider’s perspective.
He had addiction and mental health issues that led to criminal trouble.
“If I didn’t get help 14 years ago, I never, ever would have gotten anywhere,” he said, referring to turning his life around and founding Second Chance, which now has 21 police departments involved.
Cunningham, Elizabethtown’s chief, was onboard with Second Chance at its inception, and said it’s probably helped more than 300 people over the past two year.