Co-Responder Model of Criminal Justice: A Deep Dive in Officer and Clinician Collaboration?

In the co-responder model of criminal justice, a law enforcement officer is paired with a mental health clinician to respond to emergency calls suspected to be related to behavioral health problems.  The significant benefit of this model is that it utilizes the combined and varied expertise both individuals possess.

Co-responders usually work together in one of two ways: either they ride together for the entire shift and respond to all calls together, or they ride separately, and the clinician is called only to scenes where officers determine they are needed.

How a Co-Responder Team Handles Scene Arrival

Once they arrive on the scene, the first responsibility is de-escalating the situation. This emphasis is similar to if the partners were working in more traditional law enforcement roles, as de-escalation is the primary concern before any attempt at problem-solving can begin.  Deescalating various crises is the first place where having a team of differing experiences can help tremendously.

In some cases, individuals may trust police officers over anyone. Having a member of law enforcement present will allow them to feel safe enough with the clinician to be open and honest about what is happening. In other situations, individuals may have had negative experiences with law enforcement and may be more open to talking to someone without a law enforcement background, as a team from Pennsylvania explained.

“A lot of times, people don’t want to talk to us, but they’ll talk to her, which has helped out tremendously,” said Patrolman Scott Schaeffer of Steelton, PA.

“Just knowing that I’m there, and I’m not an officer, and I’m there to help them and give them resources that maybe the police department doesn’t have or don’t know about, I think that’s very, pretty, pretty helpful for them,” Co-responder Rolko reported.

The more relaxed nature of co-responders arriving on the scene can help to de-escalate a crisis more quickly than a lone law enforcement officer in a marked car. There likely isn’t anyone unaware that the sight of a police car alone often raises anxiety in many individuals.

Summit County (Colorado) Sheriff Jaime FitzSimmons reported on the effect of Co-responders working together for the community.

“A co-response in our community pairs a deputy and a clinician wearing plain clothes and driving an unmarked car, supported by a case manager. It’s intentional, and it’s purposeful. When they arrive on the scene of a mental health call, it immediately helps reduce stigma and begins to de-escalate the crisis, whereas many times, just the presence of a uniform can escalate a situation. This approach has been really successful for our community… There isn’t a crisis that someone in our community could find themselves in today that our case managers could not solve through the relationships they’ve built with our community partners.”

Co-Responder Teamwork

It is important to remember that Co-responder teams are just that; they are teams. As a result, each partner learns to rely on the other’s expertise in relevant matters.

In this way, these individuals are no different from two officers who become partners and work together regularly. However, partners must learn to work together, respect each other’s perspectives, and trust each other’s judgment.

The only difference when the team is an officer and clinician instead of two officers is that the professional experience is more varied, allowing many more problems to be solved more effectively.

Navauda Miller, a clinician who works with law enforcement, said, “From a personal perspective, as a clinician who previously worked with law enforcement, I valued the knowledge I gained while working with officers in emergency situations. I also enjoyed teaching those same officers about various mental health indicators and how to manage them safely. It brought new perspectives to my practice and allowed those officers to practice more informed responding even when they didn’t have a clinician present.”

This give-and-take of knowledge is crucial when you consider that in many co-responder programs, clinicians are unavailable 24/7 due to either lack of funding or the number of available clinicians.

Blaine Hall of the Montrose, Co Police department praised the improvement in safety and communication that their co-responder program brought to their officers and community.

 “The Co-Responder program utilized by the Montrose Police Department in partnership with The Center of Mental Health has become a tremendous asset for our officers. Furthermore, the program has increased lines of communication between law enforcement in our community and The Center for Mental Health. The City of Montrose understands how important it is to have trained staff on-scene when an individual is experiencing a mental health crisis. The Mental Health Co-Responder program elevates our ability to successfully de-escalate these situations and provide individuals in crisis with immediate and necessary services keeping them out of the criminal justice system.”

How a Co-Responder Model of Criminal Justice Team Handles Problem Solving

After the situation is calm, the partners can work together to determine what the individual needs, whether it is linking to needed mental health services, coordination with natural supports, or in high-need cases, potential transport to a facility for the required treatment. This area is perhaps where the co-responder team has the greatest likelihood of long-term success in mental health, behavioral health, or substance abuse situations over that of a traditional law enforcement team. 

When a co-responder team works together in the field, they understand and respect each other’s strengths and knowledge. They rely on each other’s insight and judgment in both day-to-day experiences and crisis situations. This trust is built through regular interaction and learning, just as any other team building occurs. They learn to defer to the partner whose expertise best fits the crisis.

If the situation requires mental health expertise, the co-responder takes the lead in problem-solving the situation while law enforcement is there for support. However, if the situation is more of a legal crisis, the law enforcement officer takes the lead while the co-responder is there for support. In either case, the team can manage the crisis effectively.

One way the team can know before they arrive on scene which approach will likely be needed is if the community is using a data-sharing software program like Julota. Julota enables the team to look up an individual and see pertinent information about mental health, legal, or previous emergency situations. This can be an incredible resource to the team, as anyone who has worked in a crisis situation can attest to the benefit of having more information before stepping out of the car and beginning interactions.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, within a month of their co-responder program beginning, the team’s benefit was already being seen.  “A behavioral health specialist brings a unique perspective to the partnership with Knoxville Police Department,” said Candace Allen, senior director of adult intensive outpatient services for the McNabb Center. “We know how important it is to decriminalize mental illness and addictions and to provide referrals to treatment in lieu of jail whenever appropriate. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with KPD to affect change in our community.”

How a Co-Responder Model of Criminal Justice Handles Follow-Up

Co-responder programs also tend to follow up with individuals after they leave the initial crisis encounter. But, again, how this is handled varies by program: some programs follow up as a team, while others send dedicated case management services.

Additionally, programs often work with other community resources, coordinating with various systems of care to ensure the individual receives the services they need.

Often in smaller communities, the follow-up is done as one of the clinician’s responsibilities on the co-responder team while the law enforcement officer manages other responsibilities. This division of labor allows for more to be accomplished in the same amount of time. Sometimes both members of the team may follow up depending on the events of the crisis.

A case manager is often employed in more extensive programs to manage the follow-up on calls. This addition to the co-responder team allows the team to focus on current calls and ensures that individuals receive the necessary follow-up care.  This is another area where the data sharing program Julota significantly benefits your community program.

Julota is a flexible, interoperable, and compliant cloud-based platform that enables communities to implement critical initiatives like Mental Health and Law Enforcement Co-Responders and Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT).

Julota enables communities to better address mental health, opioid, and substance abuse, emergency super-utilizers, and interventions while expanding the impact of limited community resources by connecting the right service, with the right resources, at the right time. Additionally, it is completely HIPAA-/mental health (42 CFR part 2)-/Criminal Justice Information System- compliant and can interface with any law enforcement CAD system.

Co-responder programs have been shown to save communities money, save officers time, and provide the best services possible for the individual in crisis. With Julota, your co-responder model of criminal justice can tremendously impact each individual served and your community as a whole.