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Residents put community response teams on Allentown City Council’s agenda — and maybe the ballot, too

Allentown City Council is considering a proposal to establish a one-year pilot program that would send EMTs and mental health specialists to some 911 calls.
MattGush/Getty Images
Allentown City Council is considering a proposal to establish a one-year pilot program that would send EMTs and mental health specialists to some 911 calls.

Allentown City Council members will weigh whether to launch a new “alternative first-response” program backed by thousands of residents.

But the city's police chief voiced opposition to the idea and raised concerns about it, calling it "defund-the-police rhetoric."

The Pennsylvania Working Families Party submitted more than 2,000 signatures last month in support of a petition that calls for Allentown to create “mobile community response teams” for issues that “should not and cannot be adequately addressed by police.”

  • Thousands of Allentown residents signed a petition calling on the city to create community response teams to respond to some 911 calls
  • Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk and Police Chief Charles Roca said Wednesday they do not support the proposal
  • The measure could be on November ballots if the Allentown City Council doesn't approve it

The response teams would include an emergency medical services professional and a behavioral or mental health specialist, according to the proposed ordinance introduced Wednesday by the Allentown City Council.
About 50 people attended the meeting, with only a few seats left open.

Teams would be dispatched to calls involving mental and behavioral health, substance use, welfare checks and quality-of-life complaints — including disputes between families or neighbors and calls about unhoused or suspicious people, the proposed ordinance says.

Community response teams would “arrive without armed law enforcement” and be required to “only request law enforcement back-up as a last resort” after trying to de-escalate the situation, the ordinance says.

Dispatchers at the Lehigh County 911 Center would only dispatch firefighters and/or police to “community response” calls if there's an emergency fire or medical situation; a threat of immediate physical injury or death; a report of violent criminal activity that poses a risk to public safety; or if callers request police or fire units, according to the ordinance.

Community response teams would “improve public health and reduce [the city’s] overreliance on the criminal justice system to address public health and economic issues,” the ordinance says.

The ordinance says the one-year pilot program would cost about $4 million.

The program would be part of Allentown Health Bureau, which is a division of the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development.

The proposed ordinance will be the subject of a special Allentown City Council meeting June 7.

Proposal is ‘defund-the-police rhetoric’

Allentown Police Chief Charles Roca said Wednesday he does not support the proposal from the Pennsylvania Working Families Party, and said it “meets police abolitionist goals and [is] defund-the-police rhetoric.”

“These are services that complement a police response, they are not a replacement for it,” Roca said.

Community groups that gathered signatures for the petition misled people about the program they were proposing, Roca said.

Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk also made similar claims. He said his wife and one of his children signed the petition, but were never told about the costs or “tradeoffs” associated with the pilot program.

Roca said he had no input on the proposed ordinance and accused those who are promoting it of sowing “division” and discriminating against police.

Current or former law enforcement officers would not be eligible to serve on mobile community response teams if the ordinance is passed as proposed.

Several residents who voiced support for the proposal Wednesday said some people experiencing mental health crises are triggered by police officers.

The ordinance says police lights and “wailing sirens” also can “exacerbate feelings of distress and escalate mental and behavioral health-related crises.”

'Not even touching the police's budget'

Allentown City Council member Ce-Ce Gerlach strongly refuted Roca’s claims that the proposal seeks to “defund the police” or reallocate money from the department.

“This is not defunding the police,” Gerlach said. “This isn't even touching the police's budget.”

She acknowledged that the pilot program’s $4 million cost might need to “be adjusted,” but she urged her fellow council members and others to fully consider the proposal.

“I think we need to have that conversation [about costs], and instead of just shooting it down and saying, ‘No, this isn't gonna work,’ let's see how we can work with the legislation, maybe make a change here or there and make it amenable to everyone,” Gerlach said.

She also rejected Roca’s claims that the proposal was done secretly, as well as Council President Daryl Hendricks’ comment that it was “thrown in our face.”

“This is not a new conversation, and I take offense to the statement that this is a new conversation,” Gerlach said. “We've been talking about this for three years, and it is the citizens’ right to petition their elected officials to take action on a subject.”

Allison Mickel, who helped gather signatures, told the Allentown City Council the proposal is not “a referendum on the police and their ability to do their jobs.”

“I think that this ordinance and putting it to the voters is really going to be about what kind of city we want Allentown to be,” Mickel said. “I think we want to be a city that brings specialists and experts to bear on issues that they have special training for.”

“We don't ask paramedics to be kindergarten teachers. We don't ask arborists to handle a wound,” she said.

'Irresponsible' spending

Allentown Police Department works with community intervention specialists from Pinebrook Family Answers to run a mental health liaison program, Roca said Wednesday.

Those specialists respond to calls involving mental health issues that don’t require a police intervention and work to connect residents with services they need, Roca said.

Dr. Bill Vogler, CEO of Pinebrook Family Answers, said Wednesday that he shares many of the same goals as the proposed pilot program.

“I think that they're worthy goals,” Vogler said. “But I think we're already achieving a lot of those goals with some of our current integration of social workers in the police department right now. That $4 million could be spent on so many other things that Allentown needs.”

Vogler said it would be “irresponsible” for the city to spend $4 million on a pilot program for mental health responders “when we already have systems in place that can achieve those goals.”

He suggested the Allentown City Council spend one-tenth of the proposed cost of the pilot program — about $400,000 — double Pinebrook’s capacity to send crisis intervention specialists to emergencies.

“I think we should spend our resources where they're needed rather than implementing the new, expensive, shiny object kind of program,” he told the council.

Vogler and Roca also raised concerns about how Lehigh County 911 dispatchers will determine which type of responder to send to emergency situations.

Residents could vote on proposal

The Pennsylvania Working Families Party collected enough signatures to ensure the proposal will be put in front of residents in November if it is not approved by the Allentown City Council.

Allentown ordinances allow any five voters to form a committee responsible for circulating and filing signed petitions. Committees must collect at least 2,000 signatures in support of a proposed ballot initiative or referendum.

Proposed ballot initiatives and referenda that are rejected by the Allentown City Council are then sent to voters to decide.

Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk urged the Allentown City Council on Wednesday to vote down the proposed ordinance and put it on the ballot.

“I want this to go to the voters of the city of Allentown,” Tuerk said. “I would argue for defeat in November as well.”

Tuerk said his administration “would’ve looked at” establishing a pilot program for community-based first responders, but he said that should be done through a “collaborative process” with city officials and not a ballot initiative.

“I want to thank the people who did circulate the petitions for putting this on the agenda,” Tuerk said. “I think you could’ve taken a different approach and we would’ve talked about it, but I want to thank you.”