Not all Co-Responder Programs are created equal. Though the model is defined as the pairing mental health and law enforcement who jointly respond to behavioral health crises, the models vary in their implementation.
Team structure differs between locations to meet the needs of the individual community and their partner agencies. Variations may include the use of peer support specialists or social workers and whether partners physically respond together or meet at the scene.
On-scene crisis de-escalation is provided, which includes screening and assessments, and referrals to needed services. While successful implementation of the programs may be challenging to determine, several factors are known contributors to their effectiveness. This article will address the good, the bad, and the ugly truths about co-responder programs.
The Good Aspects of Mental Health and Law Enforcement
When asked the question: “What are the good points of your program?” you will hear co-responder team leaders reply: “Not only are we now able to immediately connect individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis with services that can help them, we have lessened the burden on the criminal justice system and local hospital emergency departments.” (Rick D. Brandt, Chief of Police for Evans, Colorado)
Or this from Cynthia Grant, chief clinical officer AllHealth Network, Arapahoe County, Colorado: “Individuals in crisis report feeling less threatened and stigmatized in interactions with co-responder teams, as compared to interactions with law enforcement alone…We’re really talking about an individual who has a compassionate, respectful response that actually aligns with what they need…”
In addition to these positive results, first responders agree that using behavioral health experts at the scene results in more efficient use of their time, allowing them to resume regular duties more quickly. De-escalation techniques taught to police officers on the co-responder teams have also helped to reduce officer use of force, providing increased officer and civilian safety.
Additionally, successful programs report that efficient data harnessing provides insight into which program interventions are most successful and where improvements are required. Effective harnessing of vital data can only be achieved through a robust technology solution.
Julota’s award-winning SaaS (software as a service) platform allows you to customize data fields and reports according to your organization’s specific needs and measure the impact of your community’s initiatives. It is used by municipalities, counties, and states from coast to coast to address the pressing needs of law enforcement and behavioral health professionals.
The Bad Aspects of Mental Health and Law Enforcement
As with most things, the good must come the bad, and co-responder programs are no different. Historically, one of the most significant challenges encountered by stakeholders has been funding.
Currently, the primary funding sources for behavioral health crisis care are SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services). Still, additional funding sources are becoming more readily available. In light of the implementation of the 988 crisis number in July 2022, many states are increasing their mental health budgets.
On February 10th of this year, Governor Jared Polis of Colorado announced a $113 million public safety package that will make Colorado one of the top ten safest states in the United States. Approximately $16.5 million will be available in grants for co-responder programs.
Funding will also be available for behavioral health programs within jail systems, among other things. Polis noted that Colorado already has many examples of successful co-responder models, such as Summit County’s SMART program and Denver’s STAR program. He stated: “We know it works; we need to see more…another benefit of co-response models is it frees up law enforcement resources to pursue real criminals rather than people who have mental breaks or problems and have social service needs…”
Georgia has also taken steps to improve mental health reform through the Senate’s unanimous approval of a statewide co-responder model. Under the proposed “Georgia Behavioral Health and Peace Officer Co-Responder Act,” the state’s 23 community service boards will provide a behavioral health specialist to assist officers in responding to a crisis virtually or in person.
The licensed specialist will guide officers, assisting them in providing treatment to individuals rather than making an arrest. Senator Ben Watson, sponsor of the bill and a physician himself, stated: “…I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to ensure individuals in a behavioral health crisis receive an appropriate response, appropriate care, and consistent follow-up. This legislation is a significant step toward securing mental health services in Georgia communities by providing crisis interventions to those with the most urgent need.” (The Georgia Behavioral Health and Peace Officer Co-Responder Act now awaits a House vote.)
And The Ugly
By the end of 2020, there were approximately 18,000 full-time federal, state, county, and local law enforcement agencies in the United States. Still, only a tiny fraction of communities have co-responder teams. That is the ugly truth about co-responder programs: too few police departments have embraced the concept. The question is, why? The answer varies, but several reasons may apply, such as:
- Lack of community resources
- Insufficient funding sources
- Data collection and sharing challenges
- Insufficient staffing
Lack of Community Resources
One of the most critical elements of a successful co-responder program is the availability of community resources. Access to adequate treatment services is needed as well as the availability of social supports such as housing and transportation.
Establishing a program when no actual services are available would be counterproductive. It is like working backward: help must be known before it is needed.
If a community needs more resources available, establishing a co-responder program may not be a viable solution. Rural areas are particularly challenged in this area as they often have little or no access to mental health services and providers.
Insufficient Funding Sources
As discussed, funding is often a significant barrier to establishing a co-responder program. Stable, dedicated funding is critical to the program’s sustainability for resources that include staffing and training, community engagement, and even marketing. In many cases, monies may be required to build up the community’s crisis response systems, including crisis hotlines that receive direct calls and facilitate care coordination.
At the outset, funding will be needed to cover startup costs and support the initial operations of the program. Typically, this is obtained through state or federal funding, with a plan to transition to local sources once the program succeeds.
Data Collection and Sharing Challenges
Another significant community challenge in developing a co-responder program involves collecting and sharing data. Generally, data systems used in law enforcement, behavioral health, and emergency responders work independently.
Integrating these systems into an interoperable format is a technical and regulatory challenge. Julota’s cloud-based platform connects these disparate systems, making vital information available to all entities who need it.
Agency partners such as law enforcement, behavioral health professionals, and other community agencies can access data via smartphone, tablet, or laptop at the scene quickly and securely per HIPAA guidelines. Once your program is implemented, Julota’s solution can assist in harnessing data to show system outcomes and performance.
Insufficient staffing is often a significant hurdle when determining whether a co-responder program will be a viable solution for community crisis response. And rightly so. Generally, a crisis call response requires two to four people to be deployed to the scene, which means that calls must be dispatched according to severity, leaving some folks without appropriate help.
In addition, team members should receive ongoing training in de-escalation techniques, basic behavioral health information, and harm reduction techniques. A vital component of a successful program is identifying appropriate individuals for the team.
Research has shown that officers with a service-oriented style of policing are best suited to this role and, ideally, have lived experience with mental health or substance use disorders. Behavioral health specialists must have the temperament and skill set to interact with police officers. All team members should be cross-trained in the culture, philosophies, language, and procedures of all partners.
Today, police officers are increasingly tasked with responding to people in crisis, and communities across the nation are seeking solutions to support law enforcement and address crisis needs. Mental health and law enforcement co-responder teams are successfully developing new approaches to behavioral health crises and adopting innovative tools to serve better and protect vulnerable individuals.
Though this article has discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding co-responder programs, the prognosis is promising. When implemented well, they provide improved and faster responses to crisis situations and better follow-up after a crisis.
They are proving to be cost-effective and have reduced reliance on the criminal justice system by reducing arrests and admissions to emergency facilities. As we move into the future, we can find hope in renewed recognition of the need for better crisis care in this country.
President Biden’s announcement of a national mental health strategy is a step in the right direction that can help to transform our health infrastructure to better address behavioral health issues.