Lawmakers Push Police Reforms Aimed At Dealing With These With Disabilities

U.S. Senator Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., And other federal lawmakers support laws aimed at reducing the chance that police encounters with people with disabilities or mental health problems will end tragically.

Casey sponsors the so-called LEAD initiative (Law Enforcement Education and Accountability for People with Disabilities). It includes two bills that would direct some emergency calls away from 9-1-1 to human services and mental health support agencies, Casey’s office said. The package would also provide more training for the police when dealing with people with disabilities or mental health problems.

Casey referred to the deadly shootings of Walter Wallace, Ricardo Muñoz and Osaze Osagie when he pointed out the need for such legislation.

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“As legislators, we must do everything in our power to prevent tomorrow’s tragedies. The families of Walter Wallace Jr., Ricardo Muñoz, and Osaze Osagie from Pennsylvania needed and never got support with mental health problems. 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 the demands on the police and provide law enforcement agencies with the knowledge and skills needed in a crisis situation.”

Wallace was fatally shot by Philadelphia police in October 2020 after authorities said he ignored orders to drop a knife. His family’s lawyer said the family had requested an ambulance to help him with a mental crisis. The fatal shots increased tension between the police and townspeople.

Muñoz was fatally shot and killed by a Lancaster, Pennsylvania police officer last September. Body camera footage showed him running at the officer with a knife while the officer fled and shot him. According to the family, Muñoz suffered from schizophrenia and paranoia. They struggled to get help. Lancaster District Attorney Heather Adams ruled the shooting was warranted. Muñoz was waiting for the trial because he stabbed four people, including a teenager.

In 2019, the parents of Osagie, a state college in Pennsylvania with autism and mental health problems called the police because they were concerned for his wellbeing. Officers shot Osagie when he ignored her orders to drop the knife and ran on the officers, police said. Center County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna concluded that the officers “were justified in the use of force,” but the shooting resulted in changes in the way state college police handle mental health calls bypasses.

Casey’s office cited a report from the Ruderman Foundation investigating the law enforcement shootings in 2015. The study found that a third to half of all shootings that year involved a person with a disability.

A bill, the HELP bill, would redirect 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 move would also help improve these systems, Casey’s office said. The legislation would create an oversight body for these networks, including representatives of the community of people with disabilities, the elderly and minority groups.

Another bill, the Safe Interactions Act, would give grants to nonprofit organizations to develop programs to assist police in encountering people with disabilities. Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., And Susan Wild, D-Pa., Jointly sponsor the legislation.

“We need to do more to ensure that interactions between law enforcement agencies and people who are in a mental crisis or living with a disability are based on best practices for the safety and wellbeing of all parties,” Wild said in a statement.

Patrick Yoes, National President of the Fraternal Police Force, made a statement in support of the effort.

“Without adequate training, it can be difficult for a law enforcement officer to identify someone with a disability and know how to deal with that person in order to avoid misunderstandings,” Yoes said in the statement. “The Safe Interactions Act will give officials access to such training, which is developed in partnership with people with disabilities to create safer communities.”

The Pennsylvania 2-1-1 Network is available nationwide and can connect people with health and personal service needs. The United Way supports the 2-1-1 network in Pennsylvania and across the country.

Suzanne McCormick, US president of United Way Worldwide, said the legislation “means more people can get the help they need, especially those with mental health and other problems.”

Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Kirsten Gillibrand, DN.Y., Bob Menendez, DN.J. and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. are among the sponsors of the bills.

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