Starting a new program, especially an effective community services program, can be daunting. There are so many variables to be considered that it can seem overwhelming to get started. One of the ways developing community change can be a more straightforward proposition is by looking at the models and programs already working elsewhere in the country.
Beginning something revolutionary becomes a more manageable task when you can follow the lead of successful pioneers like the five programs discussed below, all of whom have had remarkable successful co-responder programs in vastly different areas of the country.
Successful Co-Response since 2017: Douglas County, Colorado
Located halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs is Douglas County, home to around 360,000 residents, partially metropolitan and partially rural. Douglas County is also home to an exemplary co-responder program.
Douglas County employs a Community Response Team and a Youth Community response team resulting from a partnership among law enforcement, county commissioners, Fire/EMS services, and mental health providers. This partnership is responsible for streamlining services in this county and helping to change how emergency services are utilized. In the co-responder model, a mental health professional rides along in the car with a law enforcement officer that has been specially trained for the team.
These teams all use the cloud-based Julota platform to enable the needed seamless communication of essential information while in the field and the office to ensure any individuals they connect with are served in the best way possible with every interaction. Currently, Douglas County has four such teams patrolling the county and providing training for other law enforcement and the general public.
The teams work to avoid ER visits unless necessary for medical intervention and avoid the use of jails at times when mental health is the main issue surrounding the need for intervention. Additionally, since the teams have a law enforcement officer involved, other law enforcement units are released to return to other duties when a situation is determined to be mental health-related and safe.
In 2019 this resulted in 688 law enforcement units, 179 fire/EMS workers, and 73 fire/EMS vehicles being released back to services once the co-responder team took over. The estimated savings that the Community Response Team has brought to the community between 2017 and 2019 exceed $4.9 million.
Additionally, only 4 percent of all community contacts required transport to an emergency department and around 25 percent of 911 calls, which was a marked improvement in resources. To break the savings to the community down a bit more: in one year, the team saved over $65,000 on jail diversions alone by diverting 75 individuals to a setting that can focus on treatment for them.
The majority of 911 calls were successfully treated in place and required no intensive treatment.
Reports from 2017 up to 2020 show that over 2500 individuals helped. Of these, there have been 586 emergency department and 208 jail diversions. Of those referred for further case management services, over 50 percent continued with successful engagement with needed services decreasing the continued use of emergency services substantially.
Co-Responder Impact in the Heartland: Johnson County, Kansas
In the nation’s heartland is a co-responder program that Merriam Police Chief Darren McLaughlin has called this program one of the most impactful things to happen in his 33-year career.
Johnson County is primarily suburban, consisting of over 600,000 people, and has utilized co-responders for eleven years. As of September 2021, eleven co-responders were embedded in law enforcement, expecting to grow exponentially over the next year.
Here, co-responders may respond to a situation with an officer and often follow up after the initial crisis is resolved to ensure that the individual receives the care they need and remains in a better place mentally.
In Johnson County, the department recognizes that sometimes an individual in distress is uncomfortable talking with a police officer. Uniforms and authority can be a trigger regardless of how the current officer approaches them. In these instances, a licensed mental health worker like Kate Coleman of the Shawnee Police Department is on hand to help the individual through the crisis.
However, at other times, it may be comforting to have the familiarity of the police uniform and presence; in these cases, the fact that there is always a law enforcement officer on hand is of vital importance.
Kate reports, “There are times when individuals are more comfortable talking to a co-responder during a mental health crisis, and other times when individuals feel better speaking with police. In addition, having both professions on the call allows for us to meet more needs and come to the right resolutions.“
In Johnson County, the co-responder program continues to grow as the county sees continued success for individuals served and the community. Law enforcement teamed up with co-responders on 1,022 911 calls in 2019.
That number grew to 1,626 in 2020 and grew to 2,260 in 2021. Additionally, co-responders will follow up with individuals they meet in crisis and provide much-needed support and stability later. This small act of care can significantly impact individuals continuing to seek care in the community and relying on community supports rather than emergency services.
Significant Changes for Co-responders after Tragedy: Omaha, Nebraska
In 2017 after a tragic incident involving a man who had mental illness and law enforcement, significant changes were made in Omaha as to how mental illness is addressed.
Police began working with a licensed mental health professional to manage mental health crises better, and the department began developing a co-responder program. That program led to the development of the Behavioral Health and Wellness team in 2019.
This team, led by a licensed mental health professional, takes the lead in situations involving mental health disturbances, connects individuals to community services, and makes referrals.
Additionally, the team will set up follow-ups to help the individual continue down a path of better health instead of having to rely on emergency services. “So when we have our mental health professionals assist those individuals, they can connect with them not just while they’re on the scene, but afterwards they can get a hold of them, and help them re-established with resources,” Lindsay Kroll said.
“So it’s not a one-time service kind of thing.” Kroll is the mental health coordinator for the police department and reports that the team responds to an average of 400 calls per month in Omaha.
The increased awareness the team brings to the specialized care needed to support those with mental health struggles in the community has impacted the department in other ways as well. Police officers have also started to use vacation time to obtain additional mental health training, so the department can respond better and more appropriately to mental health concerns.
Police chief Michele Bang recognizes the positive help this co-responder team provides the department. “In the past, our only option was, we would take them to a shelter if they were willing to go, and they haven’t committed a crime, or we would take them to jail,” Bang said.
The Behavioral Unit has had such a positive impact on the community that the Omaha Police Foundation awarded it a Community Impact award in 2021, just two years after its inception.
A Promising Start in Co-Responding: Gainesville, Florida
In the middle of Florida is the town of Gainesville, home to the University of Florida and well-known as an excellent place for families. It is also the home of a highly successful co-responder program since mid-2018. One of the newest programs on this list, it is still not short of impressive successes.
Begun in April of 2018 as a partnership between Meridian Behavioral Health and Gainesville City Police, the co-responder pair managed 635 calls in the first year alone. The program has diverted 89 percent of the 583 individuals that the co-responders came in contact with from being arrested.
These diversions saved the city about $240,000 over the first year alone. In addition, in the three years since the city of Gainesville, PD and Alachua County Sheriff have added another three pairs of co-responders to address what they recognize to be the growing need for mental health care in the area.
The Gainesville police department co-responder program aims to: respond to crises in the community related to substance abuse and mental health concerns, coordinate with community resources to provide alternate and less restrictive care and identify those individuals that use emergency services frequently and engage them in community services to minimize continued contact with emergency services.
In 2019 60 percent of contacts made by the co-responder team already had a current mental health or substance use diagnosis, but only 35 percent were currently receiving treatment.
The Co-Responder Standard: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Any discussion of Co-Responder programs would be remiss if it didn’t include Chapel Hill. One of the longest-running programs in the country, the Chapel Hill Crisis unit was established in 1973, decades before the vast majority of other programs in the country.
Additionally, Chapel Hill utilizes a peer support specialist program as well. These individuals are in recovery from substance abuse disorders and have completed programs and may have had previous experiences with the crisis program. These individuals assist in assessing others who are overdose survivors or who are otherwise struggling with substance abuse.
The Crisis Unit provides many services, from assisting with psychiatric emergency services to assessing individuals in suicidal or homicidal crises, runaway juveniles, hostage situations, and traumatic events, including assisting with first responder trauma, death notifications, and community mental health outreach. The program is truly an example of the integration of mental health professionals and law enforcement and the positive impact this relationship can have on the individuals and the community.
The team of mental health professionals was formerly led by Meagan Johnson, who has since moved on to take over Philadelphia’s co-responder program praises the teamwork of their unit and the law enforcement officers paired with them. “I don’t think we could really be a crisis unit without law enforcement’s involvement,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that surface with law enforcement that we would never see otherwise.” Johnson’s former team responded to 93 in-person calls and 200 phone call situations in one month.
Sergeant Paul Bell is one of the officers who regularly works with a co-responder. Bell commented that even though Chapel Hill officers receive training on mental health situations, it doesn’t compare to the expertise of the mental health professionals on Johnson’s team when dealing with high-stakes situations. Officers and mental health professionals in Chapel Hill are incredibly proud of their partnership and the impact they make on their community.