Embedded Co-Responder or Non-Law Enforcement Responders?

CIT International released a fascinating paper on July 6th, 2021, on the co-responder model. However, before addressing the paper, it is essential to understand what CIT is and what they stand for and what the co-responder model is.

What Is CIT International?

Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) International is a partnership between law enforcement, mental health and addiction professionals, and individuals who deal with addiction and/or mental health issues (as well as their families and other advocates). These groups have implemented a first-responder model to improve crisis responses for people suffering from addiction or mental health issues.

As it typically works now, the police respond to most calls involving mental health and addiction issues. Law enforcement would like to avoid calls with no real threat to public or officer safety. CIT believes trained community members should respond and de-escalate the situation.

Ideally, the situation can be handled without police involvement. Then, the individual in crisis can get the treatment they need. Then they have diverted away from the criminal justice system and into treatment.

When a person is experiencing a mental health or addiction crisis, most people do not know what to do, so they call 911. Sometimes a crime is also being committed, but it is usually just a person in need. In most cases, the police arrive on the scene because they respond to all 911 calls.

The CIT model attempts to change that. It is based on crisis intervention training and works to promote officer safety and the safety of individuals who are experiencing a crisis. According to CIT, research shows that communities implementing a CIT program model have higher success rates in resolving serious crises.

What Is the Co-Responder Model?

The co-responder model involves law enforcement and mental health professionals working together to handle crisis situations that do not immediately threaten public safety. In some co-responder programs, a mental health professional will ride along with a police officer throughout their entire shift and assist with any mental health crisis situations. In other co-responder programs, law enforcement will call the mental health professional to the scene only when they are needed. Ideally, co-responder programs also train police officers to handle crisis situations better. It should also be noted that EMS runs some co-responder programs. They arrive on the scene with a clinician and possibly law enforcement.

Exploring CIT International’s View on The Co-Responder Model

A Mental Health Crises Requires a Mental Health Response

According to the CIT International paper, there is a firm belief that mental health crises require a mental health response, not a police response. When there is a mental health call that is not a threat to public safety, police officers should only be involved when necessary.

If a person is a threat to public safety, police should be involved. However, suppose a person is suffering from a mental health or addiction crisis and needs treatment. In that case, CIT firmly believes that police officers should not be the ones responding.

The logic here is pretty straightforward. Only trained individuals who understand mental health should be on the scene.

For example, suppose an individual has stated they want to kill themselves. However, they are not armed and are not attempting to injure or make contact with anyone else. In that case, this is a situation where police officers would not be necessary.

CIT’s primary goal is to help people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. The CIT model promotes a comprehensive crisis response. However, the goal is for this response to avoid using law enforcement as much as possible.

When discussing this topic in their paper, CIT mentions that law enforcement is in agreement with this. Many police officers are not trained to handle a mental health crisis, and it should not be the responsibility of the police to handle these situations.

CIT agrees with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In 2020 SAMHSA stated that mobile crisis teams should respond to mental health crises without the assistance of law enforcement unless exceptional circumstances determine that law enforcement is necessary.

Law Enforcement Should Only Be Involved When Necessary

CIT’s stance is not that law enforcement should never be involved. On the contrary, they even believe that all law enforcement officers should have the option to request a mental health professional as a co-responder when the situation warrants it. In addition, CIT does not believe that mental health professionals always need to be accompanied by a police officer.

Suppose communities subscribe to a co-responder program where a mental health professional does a ride-along with a police officer. In that case, there will never be a situation in which the mental health professional responds without law enforcement, even when they are not needed. Dedicated co-responder officers could potentially take police away from scenes where they are genuinely needed. It also makes it difficult for CIT officers to structure the interaction with the person in crisis in the most effective way possible.

When a police officer is on the scene, it sets the tone for the entire interaction. It effectively turns a mental health matter into a criminal matter. As a result, many people are unnerved by police officers, especially those currently in crisis.

The simple presence of a police officer can end up causing the individual in crisis to escalate their behavior. An officer might see this as dangerous and then attempt to engage with or arrest the individual, worsening the situation.

Most Individuals Suffering from A Mental Health Crisis Are Not Violent

Per the CIT paper, most people who experience a mental health crisis are not violent and are not engaged in criminal behavior. Additionally, having the police involved while in crisis leaves them feeling stigmatized and increases trauma, as they are already feeling scared and vulnerable even without the police present.

Further, police involvement for individuals suffering a mental health crisis is disproportionately utilized in communities of color. For groups that continue to be marginalized, adding a clinician to a police car is insufficient to address these concerns.

A Push for Non-Law Enforcement Responders

The CIT paper states that there is a push and growing recognition that a substantial number of 911 calls could be handled by other types of responders throughout the country. These responders would not be law enforcement if the resources were made available. Of course, this includes many mental health calls.

While CIT understands the need for police officers in some circumstances, developing first responder programs that do not require police would be incredibly beneficial. New innovative community response or mental health response teams benefits everyone, including law enforcement.

CIT makes a very compelling case. As more and more communities across the country establish programs to divert people who have a mental illness or substance abuse, this debate will continue. It is a great debate to have because it means the problem is being addressed in many forms.

Which program should be implemented in your community? Every community is different. Thereby where one program works well in one community, it may not work well in another. In the end, the communities that show the most dramatic decrease in mental health calls will be championed by other communities due to their success.

Nevertheless, how do you prove these outcomes? With Julota, law enforcement or 911 dispatch can easily refer mental calls directly to the proper resources. Moreover, these patients can effortlessly be referred by the social worker or clinician to community services. Case managers can receive real-time feedback and alerts to see if the patients are utilizing these services.  

Moreover, this data proves outcomes and leads to bigger budgets. Bigger budgets mean you are helping more people and lowering the burden on your first responders.