Pa.’s Casey sponsors police reform bill to protect people with disabilities, mental illness

Up to half of all violent confrontations with law enforcement involve people living with disabilities, data show

By: - May 18, 2023 7:28 am
Flashing lights on a police car

(Getty Images)

In September 2020, Lancaster resident Ricardo Muñoz, 27, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was shot dead by police as they responded to a non-emergency, crisis intervention call, according to a published report.

The shooting, caught on a police body camera, provoked protests in the central Pennsylvania city.

An ensuing investigation by the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office concluded the police were not at fault, since they were in fear for their lives because Muñoz ran toward police with a knife, WGAL-TV in Lancaster reported.

Muñoz’s mother later filed a wrongful death suit against the department, the city of Lancaster, and Lancaster County, the station reported.

On Wednesday, placing Muñoz’s name on what he described as a roster of preventable tragedies, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., unveiled a suite of police reform legislation aimed at avoiding violence between law enforcement and people living with mental illness and disabilities.

“Far too often, people with disabilities and people experiencing mental health crises end up in fraught interactions with law enforcement who are unprepared to manage the situation, resulting in meaningless violence,” the Scranton lawmaker said in a statement. “It is vital that we break this cycle.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

While experts say data on the incidence of police use-of-force against disabled Americans are hard to come by, a study by the Ruderman Foundation concluded that disabled individuals make up a third to one-half of all people killed by law enforcement officers.

The bills Casey unveiled this week, with bipartisan backing, including one backed by U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., seek to enhance state and regional 211 and 988 call systems, and look to divert non-emergency calls to human services and mental health agencies.

Here’s a summary of each bill:

  • “The Human-Services Emergency Logistics Program (HELP) Act would divert non-criminal, non-fire and non-medical emergency calls from 911 systems to state and regional 211 and 988 systems, while providing resources and funding to improve 211 and 988 referral systems. The bill would create an oversight system for the 211 and 988 networks comprised of community members who represent older adults, people with disabilities, communities of color, Tribal and Native Peoples, and LGBTQ+ people,
  • “The Safe Interactions Act would provide grants to enable non-profit disability organizations to develop training programs that support safe interactions between law enforcement officers and people with disabilities. The training would be directed to both new and veteran officers and would include people with disabilities in the training as instructors. It would also establish an advisory council, chaired by a person with a disability, to oversee the training program development and implementation,” and
  • “The Data on Interactions and Accountability for Law Enforcement with Individuals with Disabilities (DIALED) Act would improve transparency by developing data collection to get an accurate representation of how people with disabilities are affected by interactions with law enforcement, including use-of-force and fatal interactions. The DIALED Act would amend the Death in Custody Reporting Act and the FBI Use of Force Data Collection Program to ensure that disability status is collected and reported publicly. The legislation would also create a national advisory council on disability status and law enforcement interaction data collection, tasked with developing collection and reporting methodologies and providing recommendations to the Attorney General on best practices,” Casey’s office said in a statement.

Police have “become the default first responders for people experiencing mental health crises,” experts for the Vera Institute for Justice concluded in a May 2021 report.

But cities across the country have begun rethinking that approach, analysts Nazish Dholakia and Daniela Gilbert wrote.

“Advocates across the country have called for officials to develop alternatives that curb police involvement in mental health crises, with local community organizations instrumental in implementing change,” they wrote.

While the approaches vary, “a growing number of cities are starting programs that rely on first responders who aren’t police, such as counselors or social workers, to respond to calls that involve mental health crises and substance use,” they continued.

Central Maket, Lancaster Pa. (Getty Images)

In Lancaster, city officials moved to change the way law enforcement responded to calls involving people living with mental illness, Mayor Danene Sorace told LancasterOnline in September 2021.

Muñoz’s death “was a tragedy for his family and our community,” Sorace told the news organization.

After Muñoz’s death, as a part of that change in approach, city police officers received crisis intervention training run by Lancaster County’s probation and parole department, LancasterOnline reported.

The “heartbreaking stories” of Muñoz and “many others tell us that we need to do more to prevent tragedies like these in the future. My legislation would connect people and police with the resources they need and keep more people safe from violence,” Casey said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.