State College: Council debating more police or mental health professionals

State College’s borough council has an important budgetary decision to make on police — and,

State College’s borough council has an important budgetary decision to make on police — and, if Monday was any indication, it won’t be an easy one.

At issue is essentially whether the borough should add eight officers to an already-depleted force next year, or four officers and a Civilian Response Team that could include mental health professionals. Council was split on the issue Monday, with some members labeling the addition of a response team as an important step forward while others characterized it as a “punitive” move toward the police department.

The public could not weigh in Monday because the meeting was a work session with no votes taking place. But the public can voice its opinion 7 p.m. this coming Monday, during the borough council meeting/budget public hearing.

“If I had my druthers, I’d rather keep the (eight new) officers I have right now but still add a Civilian Response Team,” borough police Chief John Gardner said.

State College currently has 54 sworn officers on the force, although it was authorized for 62 such officers this year. With the addition of the Civilian Response Team, that authorization would be reduced to 58 — so, depending on the perspective, the police department is either losing officers or simply not adding as many.

The borough had 60 officers at the start of 2020, and it lost officers when some left and the positions went unfilled, according to a police spokesperson. There were 63 officers in January 2019.

“I think we should fund the positions (on the Civilian Response Team) but not at the expense of removing police officers from the street,” Councilman Peter Marshall added.

Council members like Marshall weren’t opposed to the response team on principle; opposition mainly came from the addition of the team occurring at the cost of more officers. But, due to a tight budget resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, there aren’t many other places to find the money to fully fund both.

Like any local government, the budget is largely personnel-based, according to borough manager Tom Fountaine, so any other cuts would also likely come from fellow staff — unless the borough finds some flexibility in the fund balance throughout next year and/or promotes some fundraising.

So, ultimately, much of the debate Monday centered on what’s best for the community: eight officers, or four officers and a response team.

“The one correct thing Peter Marshall said was that these are very confusing times,” said Councilwoman Deanna Behring, who was supportive of the response team. “That is why we have a task force on policing and communities of color. That’s why we have a task force on mental health. It’s a lot to ask our police force. And so the solution is not to throw more police officers at the problem, but to do things differently.”

Said Mayor Ron Filippelli: “I think we need a Civilian Response Team. But I don’t think we need to cut the number of sworn officers in the police department. I think that would be foolish.”

The idea for a Civilian Response Team came from both as a recommendation from the Mental Health Task Force and was inspired by the Council’s wide-ranging resolution on policing over the summer. The borough administration also tried to take local discussions and apply them to its budget recommendations.

The Civilian Response Team would respond to calls involving mental health, homelessness and civil disputes. Depending on the circumstances, the team would respond alone or with police — although, based on research so far from the police department, the chief said the team would usually be accompanied by officers.

In the case of mental health warrants, the Civilian Response Team could also be deployed with officers. Ten years ago, there were routinely fewer than 100 such warrants served annually by borough police. So far this year, through Nov. 19, there have been 192 such warrants — with 139 last year and 142 the year before.

Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old Black man shot and killed by police last year, was one of those residents being served a mental health warrant. Marshall pointed out it was the only fatal incident in roughly the last 1,400 mental health warrants, while Filippelli added decreasing the number of officers after one tragedy is “punitive in my mind, unless there are data to back up the fact that we don’t need the number of police officers that we have.”

“First of all,” Behring countered, “I disagree with Mayor Filippelli that this needs to be looked at and articulated as a punitive measure.”

Said Councilman Evan Myers: “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.”

The debate will continue at 7 p.m. Monday during the borough council meeting and budget public hearing. The public can comment during the online meeting by signing up on Zoom via the borough website; those who simply want to watch can also do that or follow along on C-Net (Channel 7 or live-stream).

Josh Moyer earned his B.A. in journalism from Penn State and his M.S. from Columbia. He’s been involved in sports and news writing for nearly 20 years. He counts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.

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