Lawmakers Push Police Reforms Aimed At Dealing With Those With Disabilities
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., and other federal lawmakers are sponsoring legislation aimed at reducing the chance police encounters with those with disabilities or mental health issues will end tragically.
Casey is sponsoring what he’s dubbed the Law Enforcement Education and Accountability for People with Disabilities (LEAD) Initiative. It includes two bills that would divert some emergency calls away from 9-1-1 and toward human services and mental health support agencies, Casey’s office said. The package would also offer more training for police when they engage with people with disabilities or mental health issues.
Casey cited the fatal shootings of Walter Wallace, Ricardo Muñoz and Osaze Osagie in pointing to the need for such legislation.
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“As lawmakers, we must do everything in our power to prevent tomorrow’s tragedies. The Pennsylvania families of Walter Wallace, Jr., Ricardo Muñoz and Osaze Osagie needed mental health crisis support and they didn’t get it. It is time to take action,” Casey said in a statement. “The LEAD Initiative would connect people and police with the resources they need, reduce demands on police and provide law enforcement with the knowledge and skills necessary in a crisis situation.”
Wallace was fatally shot by Philadelphia police in October 2020 after authorities say he ignored orders to drop a knife. His family’s lawyer said the family had called for an ambulance to get him help with a mental health crisis. The fatal shooting added to tensions between police and city residents.
Muñoz was fatally shot by a Lancaster, Pa. police officer last September. Body-camera footage showed him running at the officer with a knife as the officer flees and shoots him. Muñoz suffered from schizophrenia and paranoia, according to the family, who said they had been having difficulty getting help. Lancaster District Attorney Heather Adams ruled the shooting was justified. Muñoz was awaiting trial on charges that he stabbed four people, including a teenager.
In 2019, the parents of Osagie, a State College, Pa. resident with autism and mental health issues, called police because they were concerned for his well-being. Officers shot and killed Osagie when he ignored their commands to drop the knife and ran at the officers, police said. Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna concluded the officers “were justified in the use of force,” but the shooting led to changes in the way State College police handle mental-health calls.
Casey’s office cited a Ruderman Foundation report, which studied 2015 shootings by law enforcement; the study found one-third to half of all shootings that year involved a person with a disability.
One bill, the HELP Act, would divert non-criminal and non-medical emergency calls from 9-1-1 systems to state and regional 2-1-1 and 9-8-8 systems. The measure would also provide aid to improve those systems, Casey’s office said. The legislation would create an oversight panel for those networks, including community representatives of those with disabilities, seniors and minority groups.
Another bill, the Safe Interactions Act, would provide grants to nonprofit organizations to develop programs to help guide police when they encounter individuals with disabilities. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Susan Wild, D-Pa., are co-sponsoring the legislation.
“We must do more to ensure that interactions between law enforcement and people experiencing a mental health crisis or living with a disability are rooted in best practices for the safety and well-being of all parties,” Wild said in a statement.
Patrick Yoes, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police, issued a statement in support of the effort.
“Without sufficient training, it can be difficult for a law enforcement officer to identify someone who has a disability and know how to interact with that person to avoid any miscommunication,” Yoes said in the statement. “The Safe Interactions Act will help provide officers access to such training, which will be developed in partnership with those who do have disabilities, in order to create safer communities.”
Pennsylvania’s 2-1-1 network is available statewide and can connect those with health and human services needs. The United Way supports the 2-1-1 network in Pennsylvania and across the country.
Suzanne McCormick, U.S. President of United Way Worldwide, said the legislation “means that more people can get the help they need, particularly those with mental health and other challenges.”
Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. are among the sponsors of the bills.
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