As incidents both local and national continue to raise questions about policing and mental health, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services [DHS] has quietly convened a panel that appears to be reviewing the public safety and social services response to behavioral health crises.
The 28-member Allegheny County Crisis Response Stakeholder Group held its first full meeting, virtually, on Friday. The meeting included remarks by DHS staff including Director Marc Cherna, plus county Emergency Services Chief Matt Brown, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert, and representatives of The Pittsburgh Foundation* and the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Its formation does not appear to have been heralded by any public announcement. It comes as the city sees near-daily protests demanding changes in policing, sometimes including calls to “defund” police, which some describe as the shift of law enforcement resources to human services or community building.
According to documentation received by PublicSource, and the accounts of four people who are stakeholder group members or have knowledge of the process, the agenda for the Friday meeting included discussion of available data, available strategies and the group’s mission and goals.
The meeting also featured input from Ayesha Delany-Brumsey, who is director of the Division of Behavioral Health at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Her work focuses on “how parts of the criminal justice system intersect with the mental health, substance addiction, and homeless systems,” according to her web page.
Attendees also received a list of around 20 existing or planned programs that respond to, or seek to prevent, behavioral crises in Allegheny County.
County spokeswoman Amie Downs declined to arrange interviews with involved county officials. “It would be premature to speak to it at this time,” she wrote in an email response to PublicSource’s request.
A city spokesman had no immediate comment. PublicSource reached out to all of the group members who are not county or city employees. Several working group members who spoke with PublicSource said they did not have authorization to discuss the county effort on the record.
Besides Cherna, Brown and Schubert, the group includes:
- Four other DHS employees: Jenn Batterton, manager of special initiatives, analytics, technology and planning; Erin Dalton, deputy director for analytics, technology and planning; Latika Davis-Jones, assistant deputy director of the Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services; and Assistant Deputy Director Jewel Denne;
- Four members from the philanthropic world: Michelle McMurray, director of grantmaking for children, youth and families, and Senior Policy Officer Wasi Mohamed, both of *The Pittsburgh Foundation; plus Diana Bucco, president of The Buhl Foundation; and Bethany Hemingway, senior program officer at the Staunton Farm Foundation;
- Three from community organizations: Rev. Paul Abernathy, CEO of the Neighborhood Resilience Project; Cynthia Haines, CEO of Focus on Renewal; and Taili Thompson, a community organizer with Operation Better Block;
- Two City of Pittsburgh Office of the Mayor representatives: Assistant Chief of Staff Lindsay Powell and Critical Communities Manager Laura Drogowski;
- Two representatives of Pittsburgh Mercy: Chief Operations Officer David Grabowski and Dr. Jim Withers, medical director of Operation Safety Net;
- Two members from academia: Edward Mulvey, director of the Law and Psychiatry Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and Sheila G. Roth, chair of social work at Carlow University;
- County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen;
- County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough;
- Whitehall Police Chief Keith Henderson, who is also president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association;
- JoEllen Marsh, LEAD program director of the Congress of Neighboring Communities [CONNECT];
- Maurita Bryant, former assistant superintendent of the county police and a former Pittsburgh police commander;
- Stuart Fisk, director of Allegheny Health Network’s Center for Inclusion Health;
- Dan Swayze, vice president for community services with UPMC Health Plan;
- Shelly Thayer, vice president of program management of Renewal, Inc., a community corrections provider.
Bucco declined to talk about the details of the stakeholder group's work, saying it is very early in the process. But the leader of the North Side-focused foundation said that “Buhl's experience in the community has reinforced a recognition that the issues of mental and behavioral health are front and center. ... And everyone is trying to be very thoughtful and deliberate about how to respond” to behavioral crises. Buhl has backed city efforts to divert people with social services needs away from the criminal justice system and toward support programs.
Missing, so far, are K-12 school representatives, police union leadership, non-police officials of suburban governments, and the activists who have made demands of the county and city.
The composition of the group could affect the public perception of any eventual recommendations.
“This is obviously a response to people talking about it and taking to the streets to say that we have to change how policing looks,” said Jasiri X, executive director of 1Hood Media, after PublicSource told him of the stakeholder group. He is a member of the Allegheny County Black Activist/Organizer Collective, which presented police reform demands to the city and county in June.
“By not bringing in folks that have been engaged in that type of work, it’s almost like you’re not acknowledging that people have put their bodies on the line, their lives on the line, to get this conversation started,” he said. A more inclusive process, he said, could “give folks out in the street an avenue to come in and be a part of the process. But from the county and the city, that’s not what we’ve been seeing.”
He said the activist collective is looking at building political power in numerous communities, not just the city. “If you’re not going to have us at the table, that’s fine. We’ll build our own.”
While County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was one of the recipients, in June, of a dozen police reform demands from Black activists, county leadership has largely escaped the kind of criticism aimed at Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. County council has mulled some reforms.
In the last decade, suburban governments within Allegheny County have settled federal lawsuits alleging excessive use of force by police, to the tune of nearly $2.4 million. Settlements typically are not admissions of wrongdoing.
That includes cases involving behavioral health crises, like a lawsuit brought by the family of Gary Beto, a man with a history of mental illness who “was hearing things and acting paranoid” when police were called in 2013, according to the complaint. He died after police from East Pittsburgh, Braddock and North Braddock responded and used pepper spray, a baton and Tasers to subdue him, the suit said. Those municipalities settled for $500,000.
The idea for the stakeholders group appears to have emerged from a July 2 meeting of DHS providers. DHS has been holding such meetings weekly, and the main focus was the COVID-19 pandemic and response.
But according to an online summary of that meeting, discussion turned to “re-envisioning crisis prevention & response,” including “exploring alternatives to police response.” The meeting summary goes on to note that: “A disproportionate number of individuals who encounter police and end up incarcerated, or otherwise harmed, have underlying human services needs. … Policing and incarceration harm Black people at much higher rates.”
Among the goals listed in the July 2 meeting: “Reduce unnecessary law enforcement encounters, arrests and the inappropriate use of force or incarceration for individuals with underlying human services needs, and reduce the number of Black people negatively impacted by our criminal justice system.” And among the potential strategies: “New kinds of first responders: mobile crisis response, pre-arrest diversion, co-responding opportunities.” Co-responding means pairing police and behavioral health professionals when responding to some events.
Some of the concepts discussed at the July 2 meeting are being used in Pittsburgh’s North Side and may soon expand to some suburbs, in an effort spearheaded by CONNECT.
The July 2 meeting included discussion of “next steps” including research of best practices, community engagement and convening of a crisis response stakeholder group.
At the Friday meeting of the new stakeholders group, Delany-Brumsey was charged with discussing “next steps.” In response to an interview request, she wrote back that she was not able to comment.
*The Pittsburgh Foundation provides funding to PublicSource.
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @richelord.