Voters in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to decide on ballot initiative to create an alternative police team to address certain calls related to mental health

Voters in Allentown, Pennsylvania, will decide in Nov. 2023 on a citizen-initiated ballot measure that would create the Mobile Community Responder Pilot Program (MCRPP). The program would be designed as an alternative first response to various types of calls related to mental and behavioral health, substance use, welfare checks, family and neighbor disputes, issues related to unhoused persons, and suspicious persons.

The initiative was placed on the ballot through a citizen initiative petition after the Allentown City Council rejected the proposal.

The initiative would require an allocation of $4.08 million and the issuance of a Request for Proposal (RFP) for public or private vendor agencies to provide services for the pilot program. The city would need to issue the RFP by January 31, 2024.

Under the program, unarmed non-law enforcement first responders who are trained in behavioral health and medical assistance would be dispatched to calls instead of law enforcement officers. One Mobile Community Response Team (MCRT) would consist of:

  • one emergency medical services professional, to be defined as “an individual licensed or certified to provide ambulance or paramedic services, including pre-hospital treatment, medical stabilization, and transportation to more comprehensive care” and
  • one behavioral or mental health specialist, defined as a “mental health professional with a degree in a human services field, experience working crisis lines or in shelters, or lived experience with behavioral health conditions.”

Under the initiative, MCRTs would need to:

  • be mobile and have their own vehicle;
  • carry overdose reversal medication such as Narcan;
  • receive ongoing training on crisis response, de-escalation, and harm reduction techniques;
  • wear clothing or uniforms distinguishable from law enforcement or other first responders;
  • never carry weapons, including weapons such as pepper spray tasers, or other incapacitating tools; and
  • offer referrals and connections to existing community resources.

Imogen Wirth, a lawyer for the initiative supporters, said, “And so, when that determination is being made by the officers about what is considered mental health, they don’t have the training of someone who is experienced. Licensed professionals are needed to be able to make that determination. There’s nothing that the city would need to do to detract from anything in its present budget to enact this program for one year, it would not touch the police budget in any way, and there would be no need to raise taxes.”

The initiative faces opposition from Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk (D), who said, “This takes $4 million off the top and says we shall spend it in a particular way. It’s not how we normally do things. Programs that are successful need to have buy-in from the program participants. … We should work to serve the public safety needs of our community, but we should do it together. That’s not what happened here.” Sergeant Ben Iobst of the Allentown Police Department said, “Don’t look at our officers like they’re dangerous and can’t respond to mental health issues.”

In March, voters in Burlington, Vermont, rejected an initiative that would have created an independent board to investigate, hear complaints, and impose discipline regarding a police officer’s actions or inactions.

In May, voters in San Antonio, Texas, rejected a ballot initiative relating to banning no-knock warrants and chokeholds, as well as abortion and marijuana criminal law. Voters in Austin, Texas, approved an initiative that authorized the Office of Police Oversight to investigate anonymous complaints, gather evidence and directly interview witnesses, and conduct preliminary investigations of every complaint and determine whether a full investigation is warranted. The measure allowed the Office of Police Oversight to analyze all force incident data and conduct random audits of body camera video.

From 2020 to 2022, Ballotpedia has tracked 41 notable local police-related ballot measures. In 2020, voters approved 20 local police-related ballot measures in 10 cities and four counties within seven states. Two were overturned after the election. In 2021, voters approved seven of 12 local police-related ballot measures in 10 cities and one county within nine states. In 2022, voters approved all nine local police-related ballot measures in six cities and two counties.

Additional reading:

State and local police-related ballot measures (2023)