Three years ago, a police officer killed Christian Hall. Now, the legislature will study the role of 911 in mental health emergencies.
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania state legislators earlier this month approved a study of how the 911 system can better assist people experiencing a mental health crisis, a measure championed by the family of Christian Hall ahead of the three-year anniversary of his death.
The study seeks ways for emergency dispatchers operating the 911 system to send crisis responders, not police, to someone who calls to report a mental health emergency.
On Dec. 30, 2020, a Pennsylvania State Police trooper shot and killed Christian Hall after the 19-year-old called 911 to report a potential suicide in progress. Before the shooting, police arrived to find Hall standing on a bridge and holding what they later determined to be a pellet gun.
Authorities at the time said the shooting was justified because the troopers feared for their lives. A Monroe County prosecutor called it a “classic suicide by cop scenario.” But a 2021 investigation by Spotlight PA and NBC News found Hall had his hands in the air for 14 seconds before police shot and killed him.
At a vigil held Dec. 17 in Christian’s honor, Gareth and Fe Hall mourned their son and spoke in support of the expanded mental health resources they believe could have saved his life.
“Bullets should not be the only resort,” Fe Hall said at the vigil. “Bullets should not be the first resort.”
The General Assembly funded the new study as part of the recent deal lawmakers struck to enact the state budget. The bill’s language directs legislative commissions to examine the 911 system and how it might integrate into the new 988 system, a suicide and crisis hotline launched nationwide in July 2022.
It also requires the study to recommend “standards and procedures which should be followed when a behavioral health crisis is routed to 988 as an alternative to law enforcement,” and requires the recommendations to consider potential cultural and linguistic barriers between responders and the person in crisis.
The language originated with a resolution that state Rep. Maureen Madden, a Monroe County Democrat representing the Hall family's home district, introduced this fall. Madden took cues from the Halls and the community that mobilized after Christian’s death, she told Spotlight PA.
“We really need to get out there that 988 is there,” Madden said in an interview. “And then we need to train people who answer the phone for 911 and have them be able to assess, is this really a 911 call or is this a warm handoff for 988?”
With the study approved, Madden is looking to other measures that would provide funding for the 988 system, which as of now relies on federal support.
She also wants to pass legislation that would allow the Pennsylvania attorney general to conduct investigations of police shootings instead of district attorneys, whose work with local police departments could present a conflict of interest. Under current law, the attorney general cannot intervene in any criminal case unless the local prosecutor asks for help.
The Halls and members of their community have long criticized the way Monroe County District Attorney Michael Mancuso, who was an assistant prosecutor in the office at the time, described their son’s death. The couple is suing the troopers involved as well as Mancuso, accusing the prosecutor of misleading the public by showing an edited video of the shooting at a subsequent news conference.
At the vigil, Gareth and Fe Hall urged their community to spread awareness of the 988 system. Fe, speaking through tears and long pauses, asked those gathered to heed their call for changes to crisis response in Pennsylvania.
“Christian’s death should not be in vain,” she said. “No other family should lose a loved one the way we did, and no other family should grieve the way we do.”