Building Police Officer Buy-In for Your Co-Responder Program

What is a Co-Responder Program?

Co-responder programs offer law enforcement, mental health professionals, EMS, and Fire departments the opportunity to collaborate, ensuring the safety of police officers and community members experiencing a behavioral health crisis. A concept initially created in the United States in the 1990s, co-responder programs have been exploding in popularity all over the globe because of the benefits they offer in money-saving and community building. This article will focus on how to construct a proper police officer buy-in for a co-responder program.

Co-responder programs work by pairing a law enforcement officer with a mental health professional (most often a licensed social worker) as a first responder team. In many communities, EMS personnel are now integral to these programs, enhancing the overall response to crises. Both the police officer and the mental health professional contact individuals in the community, ensuring a comprehensive approach to safety and care.

Co-responder programs have not only defused crisis situations and reduced arrests, but they have also played a pivotal role in building positive community relations. This success story is a testament to the proactive and community-oriented approach of law enforcement agencies.

Essential Partners in a Co-Responder Program

The key to a successful co-responder program lies in the collective commitment of all parties involved. Law enforcement agencies, mental health professionals, EMS, and Fire departments all play a crucial role in ensuring the program’s effectiveness and impact.

Co-responder programs across the nation have been set up using several different structures for operation. Some programs pair an individual officer with an individual mental health worker directly. These two professionals will work the same shift and arrive at the scene in the same patrol car. Others have a more rotating schedule where available mental health workers are paired with officers on an as needed basis.

Some co-responder programs pair with a county or state-funded mental health agency to provide mental health workers. Others may pair with non-profit or community-funded agencies where available.

Regardless of the specific structure of a co-responder program, the readiness and willingness of a law enforcement department are paramount. Their active participation is not just a component, but a cornerstone of these efforts, contributing significantly to the success of co-responder programs. This underscores the value and importance of law enforcement in these initiatives.

A police officer buy-in for a co-responder program coupled with support from mental health professionals involved is essential. This program will only function properly if both partners are prepared to trust and rely on each other’s expertise.

Incentives for Police Departments to Participate in Co-Responder Programs

Police departments may express some resistance to transitioning to a co-responder program. This is understandable, as police departments have been functioning in the same way for decades. They have not previously been asked to rely on non-law enforcement partners as heavily as they will need to in a co-responder program.

Police officers have been trained to rely on their ‘brothers in blue,’ and there will be a transition period before a co-responder program runs smoothly. However, this resistance can be overcome and should not be a barrier to implementing one in your community.

What are the Benefits of a Co-Responder Program?

What are the benefits of a co-responder program for a participating law enforcement agency? Remember that when asking them to switch to a co-responder model, you are asking a department to depart from decades of routines and doing things the same way. Luckily, co-responder programs offer some pretty significant benefits.

Here are a few ways to increase police officer buy-in for a co-responder program.

Show Them the Data

The first step in gathering police department support for implementing a co-responder program is to show the department the data that co-responder programs work! They effectively reduce the number of individuals arrested and incarcerated.

The Boston, Massachusetts Police Department’s Co-Response Team responded to over 1,000 mental health calls between 2011 and 2016. Of those calls for service, only nine resulted in arrest, and 400 of those calls were resolved on-scene.

State-wide in Colorado, co-responder teams received more than 25,900 calls between July 2020 and June 2021. Of the individuals contacted due to these calls, 98% avoided arrest. In that same timeframe, co-responders provided service to individuals on 86% of active calls, including behavioral health assessments and referrals to community resources.

These are just a few success stories of co-responder programs nationwide.

Conservation of Law Enforcement Efforts

Another benefit of co-responder programs is that law enforcement resources can be more efficiently utilized. Because the vast majority of co-responder calls don’t require an arrest, the result is that the arriving law enforcement officer can leave the scene more quickly. Allowing officers to return to patrol more quickly provides significant personnel and budget savings, especially in areas with high call volumes. 

Department Money Saving Opportunities

Speaking of budget savings, one of the easiest ways to secure police department buy-in for a co-responder program is to explain to them the potential money-saving opportunities for departments that participate in this program.

From January 2018 through December 2019, the Early Diversion Get Engaged (EDGE) program in Boulder, Colorado, diverted 829 people. Based on a 2016 cost analysis, the co-responder program saves the county approximately $3 million annually by reducing incarcerations and hospitalizations.

Douglas County, Colorado, implemented a co-responder program in 2017. By 2019, the program had already saved the community an estimated $4.9 million. These savings result from law enforcement patrols returning to service more quickly when co-responder units are available and fewer individuals being held in the county jail.

Freeing up funds for police departments to use on other projects is likely a big incentive, especially for departments with limited budgets.

Building Trust in the Community for Law Enforcement Officers

We have seen in recent years, many cities struggle with issues related to communities losing trust in their law enforcement partners. Historical patterns of racial profiling, excessive use of force, and discriminatory practices have eroded trust and created a divide between police and marginalized communities. Additionally, the criminalization of mental illness has further strained relations, with individuals experiencing mental health crises often being met with a punitive response rather than appropriate care.

Co-responder programs can help rebuild this trust. Police officers who show up as partners with mental health professionals reduce the stigma associated with law enforcement contact and show community members that police officers are there to help.

Better Serving Their Community

A presentation of the benefits that a co-responder program offers to individual community members with whom police officers interact can also gather police officer support for it.

Police departments are driven to protect and serve their community to the best of their availability, and serving their community requires serving all individuals, including those with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Individuals struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse may benefit from services available from a social worker or other mental health professionals.

While police officers do receive crisis training and some training to be able to deal with individuals suffering from a behavioral health crisis, their experience pales in comparison to that of a medical professional, such as a licensed social worker.

Bringing the most qualified professionals directly to the individuals with the most significant needs is the most effective way to reduce the hospital-jail cycle that so many individuals suffering from mental health issues or substance abuse fall into.

Police officers are very familiar with the fact that bringing an individual to jail often does little to remedy the problematic situation or prevent future law enforcement contact the following month, week, or day. When police departments are given the opportunity to really serve these members of their community in a meaningful way that will improve that individual’s life and reduce their need for service, officers are likely to support this choice.

Co-responder programs can also be narrowly tailored to address a community’s specific needs. For example, co-responder teams across the country have been developed to focus specifically on homelessness, substance abuse, or veterans’ needs. Co-responder programs offer a solution for these targeted issues, which may otherwise require high volumes of law enforcement response.

Sharing Individual Success Stories

If you plan on implementing a co-responder program in your community, plan on sharing some of the individual officer success stories from other co-responder programs nationwide.

Many officers have shared their feelings about the benefits of co-responder programs in their communities. Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor has said, “The trust the co-responders are building in the community is immeasurable.” Pryor also commented on the opportunity law enforcements officers have to provide another option for individuals they interact with saying, “To be able to provide an alternative to low-level arrests has reduced the burden on our local courts and provides officers with a sense that they can bring the possibility of a more lasting solution to the lives of some of those suffering mental illnesses.”

Gathering police department support for a co-responder program may take some effort, but the benefits your community will see will make these efforts worthwhile. With the money-saving and community-building benefits that co-responder programs offer, police departments are sure to support these efforts.