Responding to mental health emergencies, article by Kevin Ressler, Lancaster PA

Lancaster County needs a system geared to respond proactively to mental health situations [opinion]

Sep 16, 2020

Kevin Ressler is president and CEO at United Way of Lancaster County.
A tragedy happened Sunday afternoon in Lancaster city with the death of Ricardo Muñoz. To indicate otherwise simply adds insult to injury. When Muñoz’s family called police, they did so because they needed help. At no point was the help they sought their loved one’s death. When the officer responded, at no point could he have envisioned that his intervention would end the way it did. Now, two families are forever changed and scarred with a trauma that cannot be undone.

On Monday, Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace laid bare her trauma in leading the city (both the community and the police department). She bravely admitted the shortcomings within the system she leads and the social structures of health and human services support. I applaud that bravery, even if some do not see it as such.
It is easy — and lazy — to look at Muñoz’s history and cast him as a someone deserving no sympathy and no pity. A more humane assessment accounts for the fact that no moment exists in a vacuum.

Milzy Carrasco, the city’s director of neighborhood engagement, stated on Facebook that she and city police department social worker Leilany Tran visited Munoz’s family. They heard the family tell of a yearslong but unsuccessful effort to get their loved one mental health assistance. Sadly, this is believable and has been the outcome for other families that have sought similar support for family members.

When we talk about the challenges facing our modern law enforcement agencies — presently often focused on race — there is much more to those concerns. Many of us working in human services are fearful that policies put in place to protect society and officer safety can have unintended consequences for those who have mental health challenges, physical disabilities such as hearing impairment or countless other barriers.
And this is not the first time such challenges have been presented to this particular city. My own awakening occurred in 2013, with the story of Gregory Stephen Bayne, who, like Muñoz, had a history of police interactions and a battle with mental health issues.
Bayne’s interaction started with him urinating outdoors and ended when his life was cut short by a police officer’s bullet because he had a knife. I am no expert in police tactics, but it strikes me that the 2019 FBI report on police officers killed in the line of duty includes zero deaths by knife. I think that begs the question about less-lethal force and non-lethal weapons at law enforcement’s disposal. Most officers in the United Kingdom, for instance, carry a Monadnock baton and PAVA incapacitant spray instead of a gun.

I don’t know the answers but believe that questions can lead to better solutions.
In addition, we need to understand that, after these events, the families involved, and the officers involved (and their families) have to live with a trauma that deserves counseling and support. Will they get it?
More police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty. It is not an easy job, and it is made more difficult by political grandstanding that dehumanizes the victims of police interactions when we could otherwise be supporting both community members and police officers by taking seriously the needs of health reform in our society.
But, for my own well-being, I need to focus beyond the negatives of tragedy and toward possible solutions. I encourage all of us to dig deeply to think about how we can be part of an improved world.
Calling 911 is an amazing and irreplaceable resource that connects people in the moment of urgency to ambulance, fire, and police personnel. What it is not equipped to do is connect people to resources in the days, weeks, and years before the emergency.
Such a resource would be immeasurable in its benefit. I know because we have that resource.
United Way of Lancaster’s 211 call center connects people to over 600 Lancaster County community organizations. These range from coalition-based resources such as the Eviction Prevention Network to food network organizations like the one I used to run — Meals on Wheels.
And, yes, to mental health resources.
But our resource is limited in its scope because we are limited in our funding. We have designed, and are ready to build out, a better network — one that stitches together the various databases through the advances in information technologies — so that organizations can know who is connected where.
We have this resource for part of our social services network in Empower Lancaster. We desire to build upon that backbone in a new way that allows our network to go from responsive information and referral to proactive and predictive supports for a wider net of organizations.
But, yes, it would require an upfront financial investment of around $700,000. After that, for $75,000 annually we could provide small organizations with a free database that would help keep their information connected like a tidy web. We could provide a live handoff from the call center akin to 911. And we could prevent tragedy from happening.
But to be clear, I need help to build that. The bravery of politicians at the podium, I hope, can become courage come budget time. I know every budget is tight, but we expend $26 million on law enforcement in the city. The county still has CARES Act funds. I invite these leaders to go with me to seek state dollars. We have asked, and we hope for a positive result.
Until then, underfunded but not short of heart, we will continue to do what we can to prevent the next tragedy, be it days, months, or years away. And, preferably, may it never come.
I have never been one to rely on wishful thinking. May we find the courage to imagine and act in new ways.
Kevin Ressler is president and CEO at United Way of Lancaster County.


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