If your organization has recently started a Co-Responder program, you may be asking yourselves: “Now what?” That’s a fair question. Creating the program likely involved all your focus for some time as you developed community relationships, obtained funding, and trained police officers.
So the obvious question now is: “What are the next steps?“ Fortunately, the Council of State Governments (CSG) has developed a toolkit outlining practical tips for the successful implementation of your program that include:
- Development of cross-agency partnerships
- Establishment of program goals, policies, and procedures
- Determination of community needs
Let’s discuss each of these in turn.
Development of Co-Responder Cross-Agency Partnerships
Consistent collaboration in cross-agency partnerships is key to the effective implementation of a co-responder program. These partnerships can include law enforcement, EMS, mental health clinics, hospitals, vocational facilities, advocacy groups, and other consumer groups.
Promoting effective collaboration can be challenging, but programs led by multidisciplinary oversight have been shown to experience fewer inter-agency trust and communication issues. Optimal collaboration does require the support and commitment of every agency involved, so make this a top priority for your team. Scheduling regular organizational meetings are vital to keeping abreast of ongoing issues.
CSG’s toolkit recommends developing agreements and memorandums of understanding outlining each agency’s commitment to the program. These agreements clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the responding officers and behavioral health professionals who jointly respond to calls.
Interagency agreements explicitly cover the access, exchange, release, and storage of information obtained to ensure compliance with all government entities. When evaluating possible cross-agency partnerships, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) suggests including an evaluation of the policies and procedures of the individual agencies. Do their policies promote communication and cooperation with other agencies? The answer to this question can help in developing cooperative agreements.
Establishment of Co-Responder Program Goals, Policies, and Procedures
Your co-responder program most likely already developed a mission, vision, and program goals statement in its initial inception. Now it’s time to look at policies and procedures that will formalize details like coordination, access to services, communication, and consistency within the team.
Policies and procedures should be clear and comprehensive and outline the roles and responsibilities of law enforcement and the behavioral health community. They should include staffing, training curricula, and information-sharing practices that outline client information and tracking standards.
Addressing what information should be collected and shared, how, and by whom is integral to your program’s design. Navigating this issue early on can enhance the assessment and review process of the program to determine its overall effectiveness and provide vital information for process improvement.
Finding the appropriate technology solution is paramount to your program’s success and should be a top priority. In addition, law enforcement must have the ability to collect vital information on the scene and share details with behavioral health professionals and other agency partners.
They also need to instantly access patients’ information who have had previous crisis encounters. The interoperability required to meet this need is a critical component of Julota’s SaaS (Software as a Service) platform. The cloud-based solution enables safe, secure access to sensitive healthcare information through portable devices such as smartphones, tablets, or laptops.
Determination of Community Needs
Needs are often defined as the gap between what is and what should be. To effectively determine your community’s needs, a systematic inventory of your current crisis response system should be conducted. Examining what you have and what you need will provide a comprehensive view of the community and help you clarify your priorities. Questions to be addressed include:
- Do you have accurate information about behavioral health services currently available and what level of treatment they can provide?
- Are there adequate inpatient and outpatient treatment options?
- Will you need to expand upon any services?
- What does your local law enforcement data show regarding the number of calls received for mental health, and what do the demographics show about their population and location?
- What other community-based supports exist, such as housing, peer support, and substance use treatment?
Once this inventory is complete, you can establish specific criteria for your program that identify the types of calls or situations that will warrant a CRT response and what that response will look like. For example, after successful de-escalation of a situation, what types of screening and assessments will be available, and what community-based supports can be utilized? These supports can include housing, mental health facilities, peer support, and substance use treatment centers.
Follow-up after the encounter may also be established, either as a team or under dedicated case management services.
Assessment of Outcomes and Performances
It’s essential to establish baseline data at the outset of the implementation of your co-responder program that you can compare progress against. The data should include the total number of calls and outcomes of the contacts, such as arrest, diversion, or connection to care.
Additional data such as frequency of use of force and the total number of repeat encounters should also be included. Developing a process for collecting and analyzing data will aid in assessing program outcomes and performances over time. Having accurate data is vital for future improvements and expansion of the program and funding purposes.
Historically, data collection and information sharing have been identified as two significant challenges for co-responder programs. Navigating the issues of what information should be collected and shared, how, and by whom is an integral part of the implementation process. Unfortunately, many law enforcement agencies cannot track behavioral health calls.
In some cases, these calls are identified later as incident reports are reviewed, but this process is time-consuming and ineffective. In addition, information sharing across partner agencies presents additional difficulties.
Typically, different agencies’ systems do not “talk” to each other. That interoperability can only be accomplished through a technology solution like Julota. Julota’s award-winning platform can connect data systems across law enforcement, EMS, behavioral health, social services, and more, ensuring compliance with privacy and security laws. Julota’s flexible, compliant cloud-based platform is used throughout the United States to implement critical initiatives like co-responder programs.
Examining your program’s long-term outcomes and performances is vital to its future success. Therefore, effective data tracking can help provide essential insights into your program’s effectiveness.
The data-driven analysis of the community’s experiences with your team can help identify gaps in processes and services and allow you to tailor services to the community’s specific needs. In addition, these investments in data collection and research can help assess the program’s overall effectiveness and provide information for process improvement.
Sustaining Your Efforts to Ensure Success
Following the steps outlined above can enhance your community’s ability to sustain your efforts to ensure the success of your co-responder program. Once your program is in place, it’s essential to keep the momentum going.
Work with your partners to spread the word about your program through education and advocacy. Use collected data on an ongoing basis to evaluate your efforts. Obtain feedback from your partners and the community to identify areas needing improvement.
Stay in touch with political leaders in the community, provide updates about the program’s achievements, and communicate successes to ensure continued funding. Continue meeting with partners on an ongoing basis to discuss program improvements, problem-solve, plan training, and provide updates.
Celebrate victories, even small ones, like a successful outcome with a particular individual. Discuss your progress and review priorities at least once per year. Have you accomplished the goals you set for the previous year? What should you add or change? What new goals should you have for the next year?
Though a co-responder program doesn’t provide a magical solution to all law enforcement challenges, it is a powerful tool in their toolkit. By enhancing crisis response, a community system that is interconnected, effective, just, and accessible can become a reality.
With this as a reality, many lives could be saved, suicides averted, and even persons with serious mental illness could access quality care and avoid negative outcomes…” (Crisis Services: Meeting Needs, Saving Lives: Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors). As expressed by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) in the International Declaration: Washington, D.C., September 2019: “While a crisis cannot be planned, we can plan how we organize services to meet the needs of those individuals who experience a mental health crisis. It can also lead to hope, recovery, and action.”
Following the tips outlined above can help ensure the success of your co-responder program. As a result, you have the potential to improve health outcomes for individuals in crisis, lessen the demand on police, and reduce costs across healthcare and criminal justice systems.
Consider these words from SAMHSA’s National Guidelines for Behavioral Health Crisis Care – A Best Practice Toolkit: “Perhaps the most potent element in an effective crisis system is relationships. To be human. To be compassionate. We know from experience that immediate access to help, hope and healing saves lives.”