Note: These are the prepared remarks read by Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace at the start of her news conference Monday. They have been edited only for Associated Press style.
Sunday was a heartbreaking day for our city. My heart breaks for Ricardo Muñoz’s family and the devastation it has brought our community. A life was lost and lives were forever changed, including the officer involved.
As you know, the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office has commenced its investigation. Some preliminary information was released Sunday night, along with body camera footage. While we await the findings of the DA’s investigation, I want to address the larger issues at hand.
Many neighbors on the streets Sunday were asking about the use of force and response to calls for service that involve mental health. These are questions we are asking too, and it is why Lancaster city is the only police department in the county with a social worker and an additional hire in process. In this way, the police bureau has been working to address alternative approaches to de-escalating calls for service.
I know that our police respond to many calls for service related to mental health — here and other departments across the county. Sometimes police have considerable information and ambulances are dispatched concurrently. Many times these are de-escalated and individuals are able to get the treatment they need. Right now, the only system in place for someone who calls 911 for a mental health crisis is police and/or ambulance dispatch.
At the same time, there has been more than a decade worth of cuts to state-funded and county-delivered behavioral health and human services. Cuts born out of the last recession were never filled — and here we are again staring down a $5 billion state deficit which will likely impact these same services again.
The need is clear. Who should respond, under what circumstances, and what protocols should be followed? How are these calls dispatched from Lancaster County 911? There are a lot of uncertainties and nuance to these situations, which can change and rapidly escalate. We need an evidence-based protocol for responding. What is that protocol? Additionally, how do we create and staff a system that can respond 365 days a year, 24 hours a day within minutes? These are just a few of the questions that need to be answered to create a countywide plan.
I am calling on the governor, state senators, state House members, county commissioners, behavioral health experts and police to come together and put forward human-centered solutions that will work in every county of our commonwealth, not just here in Lancaster County. We have rolled up our sleeves, done some local analysis we can share and are ready to work with these partners toward a solution. However, I am clear — beyond a doubt — that we lack the tools, resources, expertise and capacity to do this on our own. I need help. We need help.
This isn’t just about the police.
It’s about the fact that a third (or more like half, depending on how you measure it) of our city lives below the poverty line. It’s about a third of the jobs in our county being so low wage that no hardworking person holding one of them down can make it work. It’s about half of the renters in this city — thousands of households — burdened by the cost of their housing. Decades of stagnant wages and rising housing costs leave no margin.
Those of us closest to the problem here at the city and in community organizations working to build more housing or deliver social services have far too few tools to build what’s needed.
I am calling on our state Legislature, regardless of political party, to adequately fund housing, social services and education equitably and adequately in your city. I’m calling on our representatives to Congress to support efforts to improve the conditions of your poor neighbors — especially around housing and economic inequality.
The pain of your city and your constituents is raw and it is real — it has been present on our streets since the end of May. While the vast majority of the protests have been peaceful, last night’s events took a turn resulting in considerable damage. I want to be clear that there is no place for this in our community, and I (have) angst over the potential for people to get seriously injured, or worse. Peaceful protests must prevail.
I am asking community groups, faith communities, nonprofit organizations, businesses and employers to join with us and seize this moment to look at the whole picture. To ask real questions, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and the economic fallout, about what each of us is going to do to help make the change.
Lancaster, if we care so deeply about loving our neighbor, then let’s do it.
Lancaster, if we care so deeply about poverty, then let’s really address it.
Lancaster, if we are a city of welcome, then all of our neighbors must feel it.
Our country may be divided across every line imaginable, but our city — this community that is the heartbeat and jewel of this county — will not be. And that will take all of us. Join me.
The city welcomes your input, concerns and questions, which can be sent to email@example.com.
Danene Sorace has been mayor of the City of Lancaster since January 2018.