Are Co-Responder Programs the Future of Policing?

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a Minneapolis grocery store. One of the police officers who showed up at the scene pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes. Floyd was handcuffed and face down on the street. Disturbingly in the last two minutes of the eight minutes, he was motionless and pulseless. We are all keenly aware of this tragic story.

Of the many consequences that followed — including a worldwide movement of Black Lives Matter protests– one of the most pressing was re-examining the current policing model.  Communities across the country have quickly recognized the urgency in creating policing programs that better respond to a community’s needs as public tolerance for these sorts of tragedies diminishes.

Several cities across the US had already experimented with co-responder programs,  where paired teams of police officers and mental health professionals respond to calls to de-escalate situations. Now, many more municipalities have rushed to put together similar programs for their communities.

We are all wondering — is the co-responder program model the actual future of policing? Let us look at the factors.

The mental health crisis is deepening

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, studies estimated that 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails had a severe mental illness (SMI) such as schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder — whereas people with serious mental illnesses comprise 5 percent of the general population.[1] The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly not made getting proper support for mental health or individuals in need any better or easier.

Police are not built to be social service workers to get people all the help that they need. They are a valuable asset and needed for public safety. However, police are the responders to almost every situation when 911 is called. When a police officer’s only and easiest choice is incarceration for an individual who needs mental health support, it creates a cycle that is not optimal for the community or the system, especially when the underlying cause of many 911 calls is mental health.

Co-responder programs are built to help these individuals instead of cycling them through incarceration and non-incarceration or into the hospital system and back out again.

Co-responder programs are built to help with mental health crises. For example, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-responders contacted 985 people who were undergoing an emergency mental-health issue — 843 adults and 142 children — between fall 2017 and fall 2018. After talking to social workers and officers, more than 260 people calmed down in their homes or workplace. They declined trips to the hospital, saving time and resources for the community and the callers themselves.[2]

As Covid-19 exacerbated many mental health situations across communities, the need for a better response to mental health crises is more important than ever. 

Co-responder programs help a community be self-sufficient.

Co-responder programs respond to a new way of understanding what crime and many 911 calls are: cries for help. Often, crime and 911 calls result from mental health issues and a lack of proper support for an individual.

Often, patients may call 911 if they have a life-threatening anxiety attack — which is not what 911 was built for. Before co-responder programs were implemented, a caller in most mental health situations would be sent to the hospital to check their physical health — which does not help prevent or fix the mental health problem. If someone calls 911 for something like that, they may likely not have family or a support system that could help them through such a crisis, so they turn to 911 instead.

When paired teams of police officers and mental health professionals respond to calls together, they can work on solving the issue.  For a patient calling about an anxiety attack, a co-responder team can drive to the location without sirens or flashing lights to help minimize the anxiety caused to the woman who called. They could approach that patient to talk through the attack, teaching them coping mechanisms if the anxiety surfaces again.  Importantly, they could connect her to resources and support groups for this very kind of situation. That way, the caller can learn to be more self-sufficient and rely less on 911 in the future. It is a much more sustainable and efficient option than sending them to the hospital to begin the cycle repeatedly when anxiety strikes once more.

A significant subset of individuals that 911 calls are concerning are the same recurring problems that stem from mental health issues. They often have not received the help they need.

With mental health professionals on the team, these co-responder programs can help direct callers and empower them to get the help they need. This can help address mental health crises by helping them make different choices, which leads to better outcomes. Instead of simply throwing people in jail or taking them to the hospital, helping to empower community members to make different choices can lead to better outcomes.

By pairing clinicians with law enforcement officers, co-responder programs can optimize where people go to get help. Having various mental health services to draw support from can help reduce transports, ER admissions, and calls from high utilizers. Having these services connected can help police focus on public safety instead of becoming social services workers.

Co-responder programs help lower costs

We are sure to see more examples of co-responder programs and their economic effects on incarceration. The established programs currently show that co-responder programs save money for communities– because of lower jail and incarceration costs, lowered ER admissions costs, and lowered returning callers.

In Eugene, Oregon, a co-responder program implemented in the city saved over $14 million for just ambulance rides and emergency room visits in 2018 alone, according to White Bird Clinic.

In Denver, Colorado, a co-responder program in Boulder County costs $600,000 a year. However, it saved the community $3 million by reducing jail costs.

By pairing clinicians with law enforcement officers to optimize where people go to get help, these programs help reduce transports, cautionary ER admissions, and calls from high utilizers. All of these things end up saving the community and taxpayers a considerably large chunk of money.

Co-responder programs are now supported by technology

Implementing co-responder programs used to be a hassle — a technically challenging mess.  Individuals are passed through multiple agencies that help them with health, social care, housing, planning, and education—each with its own software systems. That used to mean that gathering accurate and privacy compliant information that could be used by and sent to each agency was a near-impossible feat.

That is no longer the state of conditions today. For example, there is Julota.

Julota is an award-winning cloud-based SaaS platform that manages the consent, and multidirectional sharing of PHI (personal health information) and PII (personally identifiable information) between software systems for healthcare, EMS, law enforcement, behavioral health, social services, and all other local non-profit and for-profit organizations. 200 plus communities across the U.S. have implemented Julota and Julota has helped them reduce their high-utilizer calls, improve the health of their populations, decrease costs, and elevate their reputations.

Co-responder programs hoping to keep track of the individuals they are helping can have a much easier time launching with Julota — as Julota is completely HIPAA-/mental health (42 CFR part 2)-/Criminal Justice Information System- compliant. This helps co-responder programs enable the secure integrated sharing of consented information so that the programs can treat their community and direct them to the help they need. Additionally, Julota can interface with any law enforcement CAD system. Moreover, the collection of this data proves program outcomes and leads to larger budgets in the future.

We are on the cusp of a new era

In response to George Floyd’s death and the ensuing nationwide protests that call for police reform, cities across the country are scrambling to find ways to serve their communities better. Many are doing this by adopting co-responder models themselves.

The momentum is building to shift police responsibilities and resources toward social services agencies. New York City announced their intents to pilot a co-responder model in Harlem and East Harlem. Virginia’s Prince William County launched a co-responder program in November. Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando, and Portland, have joined the list of cities with co-responder programs within the past month. Many more are popping up all across the country in both small and large cities.

Each of these programs has the same goal: to “de-escalate situations involving persons in crisis.” It is inspiring to see how these programs might evolve and innovate over time. Will the extra attention to co-responder programs and a new policing model mean creating a more robust system of mental health and social services and clinics? Will co-responder programs — and how will they change the relationship that police have to the communities they serve? Is this a necessary first step to establishing a new kind of trust between communities and the police force– and public services in general?

All eyes are on police reform and new policing models. Hopefully, this will allow more communities to get on board with a better future for policing.