Five Common Mistakes of Co-Responder Programs

Across the United States, the co-responder model is showing promise as an effective means for law enforcement to interact with people experiencing behavioral health crises. Various terms are used when referring to co-response teams, such as mobile crisis intervention teams and crisis outreach and support teams.

They typically are composed of specially trained law enforcement officers and behavioral health professionals. They may also include peer specialists (individuals in recovery from mental illness or substance use disorders) or medical professionals (nurses or paramedics).

These teams respond jointly to calls involving mental health and substance use disorders. Together, they can de-escalate intense or emotional situations and divert individuals from the criminal justice system to appropriate treatment and services.

Crises involving mental health can be unpredictable and possibly dangerous to police officers. However, successful co-responder teams work together to respond efficiently and compassionately to these calls in a manner that is more clinical than criminal, ensuring the safety of everyone involved.

The joint approach provides on-scene stabilization and de-escalation, assessments, and provision of treatments, support, and referral where appropriate. Hundreds of programs are now active across the country, and research shows some common mistakes of co-responder programs that every community should address. This article will address 5 of them:

  1. Inadequate staffing and cross-training
  • Ineffective harnessing of data
  • Lack of clear policies and procedures
  • Ineffective communication with agency partners
  • Insufficient funding

Inadequate Staffing and Cross-Training

One of the most common mistakes of co-responder programs that have been identified is the issue of inadequate staffing and cross-training. Typically, two to four staff members are deployed to a crisis scene.

These responders will have varying levels of experience and expertise, ranging from law enforcement and first responders to behavioral health specialists, social workers, and peer support specialists. In addition, all members of the co-responder team should be trained in crisis de-escalation, intervention, harm reduction approaches, and more.

However, difficulties frequently occur in identifying appropriate police and behavioral health professionals for the program. It has been observed that finding officers with a service-oriented style of policing is key to their success, and not all fit the bill. Ideally, they would also have lived experience working with mental health or substance use disorders.

Likewise, behavioral health specialists who have the skillset and temperament suitable for riding with police officers in crisis response should be selected. It is also vital to cross-train the co-responder team members to introduce them to all partner agencies’ cultures, languages, philosophies, and procedures. Training for call-takers and dispatchers regarding mental health issues is also critical to identifying crisis situations that require the co-responder team.

American census data indicate that neighborhoods are becoming more diverse, suggesting that law enforcement agencies should work toward increasing diversity in their staffing efforts. For example, women comprise more than half of the U.S. population but less than 12% – 13% of law enforcement.

According to the National Institute of Justice, female officers use excessive force less often, are named in fewer complaints and lawsuits, are perceived as more compassionate, make fewer discretionary arrests, and see better outcomes for crime victims, especially in sexual assault cases. The 30×30 Initiative is a coalition of police leaders, researchers, and professional organizations who have joined together to advance the representation and experiences of women in policing.

The group seeks to increase the representation of women in police recruit classes to 30% by 2030 and ensure police policies and culture intentionally support the success of qualified women officers throughout their careers.

Ineffective Harnessing of Data

Effective information sharing is vital to ensuring successful responses to individuals in crisis situations. Access to appropriate, timely information can mean the difference between extreme outcomes like arrest and compassionate ones like treatment. However, the ineffective harnessing of that data can impact the ability to assess the impact of those responses over time, making it difficult to measure success and outcomes.

That is why having the right software solution is vital to the program’s future. With Julota’s Software as a Service (SAAs) platform, you can easily determine which of your program interventions has been most effective or where the greatest needs are. In addition, data collection fields and reports can be customized to meet your community’s specific needs.

Effective data harnessing is a valuable tool in the fight against mental health, substance abuse, and other issues such as homelessness. The availability of factual information and data ensures that informed decisions can be made about program services, operations, and activities based on objective evidence. In addition, data can support program planning and ensure that limited resources are used efficiently and effectively.

Regular monitoring and reviews can show whether the program is achieving its stated goals and objectives and provide stakeholders with the tools to identify problems and develop solutions.

Lack of Clear Policies and Procedures

Conversations with members of effective co-responder programs have shown that a lack of clear policies and procedures can lead to confusion and frustration among the team. For example, one law enforcement officer stated that, without clear guidelines, bringing clinical professionals and law enforcement together would be like “fitting a square peg into a round hole.”

Because each agency has its own rules defining actions to be taken in a crisis, bringing them together without clarity could spell disaster for everyone involved. For this reason, guidelines must be established as a combined effort between law enforcement and the behavioral health community.

Detailed policies and procedures should include specific guidelines for defining frequently used terms and specific response guidelines for transferring individuals from police officers to treatment staff. Processes should also be included for making and tracking of referrals and indicating when referrals are accepted (i.e., “closing the loop” on a referral).

The roles and responsibilities of all responders should be clearly defined in a written manual and distributed to all staff of the partnering agencies. In addition, having policies spelled out regarding how members of the team are expected to work together can mitigate any possible obstacles upfront.

When establishing policies and procedures, law enforcement should consult with their behavioral health counterparts to ensure that they are appropriate from the behavioral health perspective. The same is true of behavioral health professionals, who should ensure that their policies align with officers’ needs, culture, and the community’s perspective. Regular reviews should be conducted to ensure that the policies and procedures continue to meet the community’s needs.

Ineffective Communication with Agency Partners

Combining multiple agencies into one emergency response system can often result in ineffective communication with those agency partners. Therefore, it’s important to establish internal communication protocols early in the implementation process.

Taking advantage of existing partnerships between agencies such as community behavioral health centers, hospitals, EMS, and public health departments can help initiate dialogue in building a co-responder program. It can also assist in eliminating information “silos” between the various agency systems.

Julota’s co-responder platform interfaces with disparate systems, providing safe, secure communications and the ability to track patients’ progress over time. In addition, working with a platform hosted in the cloud means that all team members can have access through their own devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, or desktop computers.

Agency partners have likely worked as separate entities and have not employed a team approach to interacting with individuals in crisis. Transforming these various agencies into a unified team of professionals can be challenging but will ensure that those experiencing a crisis receive better care and a more hopeful outcome.

Successful partnerships require the dedication and commitment of everyone involved. The goals of the co-responder program can only be met through trust, effective communication, and commitment to a common goal.

Insufficient Funding in Co-Responder Programs

In June 2021, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services assessed co-responder mental health staffing needs in the state. As a result, five co-responder programs were selected, including Washington’s second, third, and fourth-largest cities.

Insufficient funding was reported by 75% of the surveyed Law Enforcement Agencies as the most common mistake made by co-responder programs. None of the LEAs with dedicated programs reported that their agency could fully meet their community’s behavioral health crisis needs using available resources.

In most cases, requests for more funding were associated with the need for additional staff. For example, law enforcement and behavioral health respondents indicated that two or three times the number of the current staff was needed to fill the need.

Though federal funding from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services) are the primary funding sources for behavioral health crisis care, additional funding is becoming available. In addition, many states are increasing their mental health budgets to include crisis care and using fees from mobile phone companies to proceeds from marijuana sales.

Conclusion

Our world is changing rapidly, and crisis response must change with it. Yet, co-responder teams are successfully conquering the common mistakes mentioned above.

Consumers are expressing a high degree of satisfaction with the support received during crisis, avoiding unnecessary distress, and reducing the stigma and/or criminalization of these incidents. In addition, users and families are expressing appreciation for the teams’ expertise and reporting improvements in their experience with law enforcement.

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