Your Local News | Allentown, Bethlehem & Easton
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Allentown News

‘Help Not Handcuffs’: Virtual town hall to focus on sending mental health responders to some 911 calls

Allentown Police Department
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
More than 3,800 Allentown residents signed petitions in support of a proposal to dispatch EMTs and mental health professionals to some 911 calls without police.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Residents and supporters of a plan to send mental health professionals instead of police to some 911 calls in Allentown will detail its potential benefits during a virtual town hall Thursday night.

The informational session, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. July 20, will be led by the Pennsylvania Working Families Party.

  • A virtual town hall scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday will discuss the benefits of an alternative first-response program proposed in Allentown
  • The session is expected to feature several speakers with law enforcement and mental health expertise
  • Allentown voters will likely decide the pilot program’s fate

The organization helped coordinate a group of residents who collected almost twice as many signatures as needed to put an initiative or referendum on the November ballot in Allentown.
The virtual town hall will be streamed on Zoom, while Lehigh Valley Stands Up plans to hold an in-person watch party. Anyone who wants to attend the session can register here.

Allentown voters are expected to decide the alternative first-response program’s fate after council members rejected the measure by a 4-2 vote in mid-June, just before the end of its 60-day window to act.

Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk and Police Chief Charles Roca had implored council to vote down the proposal, which calls for "mobile community response teams” to be dispatched for complaints that “should not and cannot be adequately addressed by police.”

Each mobile community response team would have an emergency medical technician and a mental health professional; they would respond without armed police, according to the proposal.

The two-person teams would respond to 911 calls involving mental and behavioral health issues, substance use and welfare checks.

They also would be sent to quality-of-life complaints, including disputes between families or neighbors and calls about unhoused or suspicious people, the proposed ordinance says.

‘Galvanizing supporters’ ahead of vote

But residents’ support ensured council’s rejection was not the end of the measure.

More than 3,800 residents signed petitions in support of the one-year pilot program, which could cost about $4 million.

“In the meanwhile, we aim to continue galvanizing supporters and conducting public education and outreach” about the program.
Imogen Wirth, a Pennsylvania Working Families Party organizer

Under Allentown ordinances, any five voters can form a committee to circulate and file signed petitions. Those committees must collect at least 2,000 signatures to put a question on ballots.

Ballot questions are first considered by Allentown City Council. They are sent to ballots if council does not approve them within 60 days.

Since council’s rejection of the proposal, Allentown officials have sent the measure to the Lehigh County Board of Elections, which will determine whether the question will be on November ballots and its exact language.

A date has not been set for the board’s public meeting about the alternative first-response ballot question, according to Imogen Wirth, a Pennsylvania Working Families Party organizer who helped lead the signature-gathering push in Allentown.

“In the meanwhile, we aim to continue galvanizing supporters and conducting public education and outreach” about the program, Wirth said.

Opposition from mayor, police chief

Mayor Tuerk has said he welcomes debate over the proposal, and he’s confident voters won’t approve.

"I think that when voters have an opportunity to clearly think through the issue in front of them, they will vote accordingly."
Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk in June

"I think that when voters have an opportunity to clearly think through the issue in front of them, they will vote accordingly," Tuerk said in June after council voted down the measure.

"My hope is that they'll reject the proposal, and that we can put things into a budget that begin to address some of the issues that were raised here.”

Police Chief Roca, who has called the proposal “defund-the-police rhetoric,” told council members in May about a program that sends community-intervention specialists to some 911 calls that don’t require police.

Allentown Police Department works with Pinebrook Family Answers on a program that Pinebrook Chief Executive Officer Bill Vogler said is similar to the proposal.

Vogler said it would be “irresponsible” for the city to spend $4 million to launch the new program and urged council members to use part of that money to boost Pinebrook’s efforts.