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Allentown OKs police mental health liaison program as voters set to consider alternative

Jason Addy
Allentown Police Chief Charles Roca speaks at Allentown City Council's May 3 meeting against a proposal to establish a one-year pilot program that would send EMTs and mental health specialists to some 911 calls.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The Allentown Police Department is closing in on a contract for a “mental health liaison” program, which it’s been using for several years.

Allentown City Council members on Wednesday unanimously approved a measure authorizing the department to enter a one-year contract worth $100,000 with Pinebrook Family Answers. The contract can be renewed for two further years.

  • Allentown City Council authorized police officials to enter a contract for a mental health program
  • Pinebrook Family Answers’ community intervention specialists are sometimes referred after calls for mental illness and substance-use problems
  • Officials urged council members earlier this year to reject an alternative first-response program in favor of Pinebrook’s specialists

Pinebrook launched its mental health liaison program in 2017, sending service providers known as community intervention specialists to follow-up on referrals from police in Allentown and other municipalities in Lehigh County.

Those specialists help people with mental illness and substance-use problems, according to the organization’s website.

The program was funded last year through a purchase order, a practice Controller Jeff Glazier raised concerns about, Allentown Police Chief Charles Roca said.

The department sought — and earned — council’s permission Wednesday to formalize its program with Pinebrook through a contract.

“I do feel it's important that — before we make any decisions about continuing a program — that we've got some data to make those decisions on."
Ce-Ce Gerlach, Allentown City Council member

An assistant city solicitor said the contract will make “the terms more official” between the Allentown Police Department and Pinebrook.

But terms of the contract weren’t available Wednesday, as “it’s still under review by the parties,” the solicitor said.

Motion to table

Council member Ce-Ce Gerlach pushed for her colleagues to table the measure until they could view more data about the program and its success and challenges.

Gerlach said the most recent data she’s seen about Pinebrook’s program was “from like a year ago” and suggested having the organization's CEO, Bill Vogler, present at an upcoming committee meeting before voting on the funding.

“What would happen if there were, say, a two-week delay?” Gerlach said. “We could have maybe Mr. Vogler or someone come in and just kind of say what they've been up to before we say, ‘Here's more money.’”

Gerlach said she wanted to see data that shows how many people were diverted away from the legal system by Pinebrook specialists, among other measures.

“I do feel it's important that — before we make any decisions about continuing a program — that we've got some data to make those decisions on,” Gerlach said.

Roca told Gerlach he would “be happy to provide (her) with data at an upcoming time,” while Mayor Matt Tuerk said he planned to provide more details to council during the city’s 2024 budget process.

Gerlach said she’s not “the No. 1 fan of this program,” but she emphasized that she’s voted multiple times to fund the program.

Ballot question

Pinebrook community intervention specialists who work with the Allentown Police Department are called after officers respond to some mental health or substance use incidents.

A question that will appear on Allentown voters’ ballots this fall is proposing a similar program, but one that would send mental health professionals to some 911 calls without armed officers.

More than 3,800 city residents signed petitions this spring in support of mobile community response teams that would be dispatched to complaints that “should not and cannot be adequately addressed by police.”

Teams would respond to incidents involving mental and behavioral health issues, substance use and welfare checks, and quality-of-life complaints, including disputes between families or neighbors and calls about unhoused or suspicious people, according to the proposal.

The one-year pilot program could cost about $4 million.

Pinebrook's Vogler in May told council members that the organization could double the program’s capacity with one-tenth of that amount — $400,000.

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

Speaking after Wednesday’s meeting, Gerlach said the lack of data about the Allentown Police Department’s program through Pinebrook makes it difficult to determine its effectiveness.

She said she’s “not hopeful” that Vogler will present to council before residents vote on the alternative first-response program in November. The mayor’s plans to provide more details about the program will likely come after the vote, as well.

“By then, it's too late,” Gerlach said.