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State College Borough Council Debates Funding More Police or Social and Mental Health Workers

Opinions among State College Borough Council members were split this week as they discussed whether the 2021 budget should fund the filling of eight police officer vacancies or fill four and add a Civilian Response Team.

The Civilian Response Team — a proposal that has grown out of community, council and regional discussions about policing and mental health over more than a year and a half — would employ social and mental health workers who would respond to calls involving mental health, homelessness and civil disputes and provide follow-up information about available services.

‘We want to put greater emphasis on community involvement in solving problems and less dependence on police to solve non-criminal matters,’ Police Chief John Gardner said during a budget review work session on Monday night.

But while some council members said the response team represents a community need as times have changed, others said it should not come at the expense of a police force that has been depleted over the past year.

The proposed 2021 budget authorizes 58 sworn officers — four fewer than the department was funded for in 2020 but four more than it has been operating with — while funding the Civilian Response team.

State College’s 2020 budget authorized 62 sworn police officers, but with departures and positions left unfilled, the department is currently operating with 54 officers.

‘If I had my druthers I’d rather keep the [62 authorized] officers we have right now but still add a Civilian Response Team,’ Gardner said.  ‘I think we can do both and I hope to do both.’

He added that regional or countywide models for funding a response team also could be considered. The preference, he said, is for a countywide initiative to create uniformity among local law enforcement.

Gardner noted that in discussions with two other communities that have response teams, he found police officers are still accompanying the civilian responders on every call to secure the area. And while State College police have had fewer service calls this year because of the pandemic, it has become ‘increasingly difficult to do this job to the level the expectations are for this community,’ with 54 officers.

While he said he fully supports the creation of a response team, ‘we have to be smart as we advance,’ to ensure civilian workers are not put in harm’s way and that a reduced police force does not burn out with excessive overtime

Councilman Peter Marshall said that when he retired as borough manager in 2003 the department had 61 officers and over time State College’s population has grown while policing has become more complicated. He added that he believes response times will suffer with fewer officers on the force and that an International Association of Chiefs of Police report commissioned by the borough found surveyed community members generally want more police-community engagement.

‘Our police department has had a lot of training and a lot of experience dealing with people with mental illness,’ Marshall said. ‘By adding a person or two with some specialized training is that something that will help? It may, and I’m not against that. What I don’t want to see is a reduction in our sworn police officers in order to do that. I am not at all in favor of taking police officers off the street to fund these… positions. I think we should fund the positions but not at the expense of removing police officers from the street.’

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said there is little flexibility to pull funding from other areas in a budget that is largely dedicated to personnel expenses and which for 2021 is structurally unbalanced because of pandemic impacts. The borough does have some fund balance, however, that can be allocated to initiatives over the next year.

‘If you look at the police budget, it’s all tied up in salaries and benefits,’ Councilwoman Deanna Behring said. ‘So if we are going to make changes and implement some of the things our community members are working with us on right now we are going to have to take a hard look at the commitment we’ve made to the number of sworn officers.’

The response team has been a subject of discussion among council and is a recommendation of the State College/Centre County Task Force on Mental Health Crisis Services, one of a number of measures toward policing and mental health services reforms that have come since the March 20, 2019 fatal shooting of Osaze Osagie by borough police.

Officers were at Osagie’s apartment to serve a 302 warrant for involuntary mental health treatment at the time. Gardner said that so far in 2020 borough police have done 192 transports for involuntary and voluntary mental treatment and over the past decade conducted about 1,400.

Marshall said only one of those has resulted in use of lethal force.

‘What we’re talking about here comes from basically one case, one tragic case,’ Marshall said. ‘I think we need to go slow on this.’

Mayor Ron Filippelli said he supports the Civilian Response Team but that funding it by reducing the number of sworn officers was ‘punitive’ and that there is no data showing State College needs fewer police.

‘I disagree with Mayor Filippelli that this needs to be looked at and articulated as a punitive measure,’ Behring said. ‘The one correct thing Peter Marshall said is that these are very confusing times, This is why we have a Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color. This is why we have a Task Force on Mental Health. It’s a lot to ask our police force. So the solution is not to throw more police officers at the problem but to do things differently. I think that’s what we’re trying to do and I would appreciate a lot more positive attitude about what we’re trying to do.’

Councilman Evan Myers said the proposed budget includes funding for the Civilian Response Team and other measures because of priorities expressed by council and a resolution passed in June that committed the borough to, among other endeavors, examining the police department budget for potential reallocation of some funds toward community services.

‘If you think that the reason we’re doing this is because of one event, the shooting on 3/20, then you haven’t been listening,’ Myers said. ‘…The one incident was a catalyst. Unfortunately it took that to make a catalyst but that’s where we are.

‘We’re all after arriving at a better place. We’re all after arriving at a community that is more secure and more just at the same time. We want to do better.’

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said that with its population growth State College does not need fewer police, but that the response team and other new initiatives are needed as the borough has become more aware of and responsive to community concerns.

‘I think if we want to provide the best services we can to the entire community, we need to look for that balance,’ Lafer said.

Police department expenditures in the proposed budget are $11.45 million, a 1.4% increase over last year and about 17% of the total budget.

The 3/20 Coalition, an advocacy group formed following Osagie’s death, has called for $2 million to be reallocated from the police department budget to fund social services that are not under the purview of the police.

In a Facebook post, the coalition called borough council’s discussion on Monday ‘repulsive and immensely concerning.’

Because it was a work session and not a regular meeting, council was not required to and did not accept public comment on Monday night. 

A public hearing on the budget, however, will be held during council’s meeting at 7 p.m. this coming Monday. The meeting will be held via Zoom and public participation is open to those who register here. The meeting also will be broadcast live on C-NET Channel 7 and www.cnet1.org.