The Next Big Thing in Behavioral Health: Co- Responder Programs

We often hear reports about how many unsuccessful programs exist, especially concerning police forces and mental health policies. However, it is essential to know that there are programs that actively think outside of the box, create change, and make positive changes in communities.

Co-Responder programs are making a monumental difference in the communities using them. If it and similar programs spread elsewhere, there is a significant opportunity to improve the lives of people suffering from mental health. Moreover, the environment for members of law enforcement and the community at large will be enhanced as well.

How Co-Responder Programs Work

Co- Responder programs can be organized in a few different ways. Each is customized around the community’s needs. At the core of the program is a team emphasis where law enforcement and mental health workers work hand in hand regularly to address the needs of their communities.

In some programs, officers and clinicians ride together, and specific teams are sent to investigate situations that are mental-health related. In other programs, officers will go out to a location to ensure the scene’s safety first before calling out the mental health professionals for assistance. Officers may then stay with the clinician while an assessment or intervention is being completed or continue to their next call or duty while the clinician manages the individual.

In different communities, the concept of co-responder is taken to an even higher level by the co-involvement of law enforcement, mental health workers, fire/EMS, and even peer support specialists who are in recovery from mental health or substance abuse struggles themselves and can further empathize and assist in crisis situations that they may have personally been a part of before.

Regardless of the structure of the programs, the goals are all the same: connect individuals at risk with the right resources for their situation, de-escalate crises, prevent the frequency of crisis recurrence, improve the safety of law enforcement and civilians, as well as diminish the ever-growing pressures on the justice system.

In communities with these programs, the hard work of monitoring and improving the safety of all community members are spread around to qualified systems, thus improving success in every facet of community life.

What is Required to Build a Successful Program

The primary requirement for the growth and maintenance of a successful co-responder program is developing a team that can effectively work together. The more programs you intertwine, the larger the variety of different approaches present themselves.

Cooperation is part of what contributes to the success of these community programs. Still, it will also require a solid commitment to a team mentality and openness to different ways of doing things to ensure success. Every team member must be looked at as an equal and valuable contributor.

Additionally, building a new community response model and programming of this level requires planning. Program development is not something that can be decided and implemented in a short time. Instead, members of the program and the community will need to sit together to determine the best model for their needs.

How mental health calls intend to be handled must be well planned and thought out. In addition, referral sources and resources for programs such as domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness, and mental health need to be thoughtfully considered and consolidated into an easy-to-access format for all involved.

The more thorough the planning stage, the more likely the program will be successful shortly after rollout. Planning is essential because problems will occur if you implement a community program without planning for your specific needs. The community is unlikely to support or buy into this new program. 

Lastly, there is funding that must be considered. As much as we would like this program to be covered with the current budget, this will involve changing how responses occur and potentially require an investment in various liaison or clinical positions within the law enforcement unit.

For those involved with government funding, you know that this will require a bit of work to institute. There is potential to share costs between all involved parties, but it is another vital aspect of planning that must be considered in your community.

For more in-depth studies and reading about building a successful program, see Developing and Implementing Your Co-Responder Program from the Bureau of Justice Assistance(BJA)   

Obstacles to Co-Responder Program Success

The main obstacle to the success of the programs is communication. Every resource that needs to be actively involved in making this program successful has its requirements for documentation and sharing information with others.

Often, individuals within these agencies have a “silence is key” motto, especially when they are uncertain of what they can and cannot share with different agencies. However, compliance is hyper-important, and the concerns are genuine.

The best way to overcome this obstacle is with a compliant platform that can work with current EHRs and CAD systems that agencies are already using or familiar with. A HIPAA, CFR-42, and CJIS compliant cloud system allows individuals working in the field to access pertinent information when needed in real-time.  

One such system that enables smooth communication across agency lines is Julota.  Julota is fully compliant with mental health(CFR-42), works with law enforcement CAD systems(CJIS), and allows individual users to access the HIPAA-compliant information they need in the field.

Julota solves the problem of interagency communication in the most efficient way possible.   

Another obstacle to success is community buy-in. Almost daily, we hear adverse news reports about law enforcement, while positive stories and progressive jail diversion programs are rarely focused on.

Negative attention has led to many communities expressing wariness about anything law enforcement tries to do. A lack of community trust can severely detriment the implementation of a successful co-responder program.

However, even a lack of trust can be overcome effectively with good planning and community communication. In addition, connecting multiple agencies to the program leads to increased confidence in law enforcement’s leadership, even in the most skeptical of areas.

The key is to be open and vocal about how things will be managed and stand together as a united front in support of all agencies involved.

A Successful Co-Responder Program Impact on Community

The impacts of a successful co-responder program cannot be underestimated. Despite the potential difficulties in implementing such a program, the benefits outweigh these exponentially.

Reducing Pressure on the Legal System

Research in communities where similar programs have been implemented has shown that effective co-responder programs significantly decrease the pressures placed on the criminal justice system. Logically, this makes sense as more individuals can receive more intensive crisis services that meet their individual needs.

Analysis has shown that co-responder teams have markedly lower arrest rates and subsequent incarceration. Additionally, the co-responder programs have decreased law enforcement’s time on calls related to mental health crises. Lower mental health calls allow officers to focus more on emergencies that require their true expertise and training.

Reducing Pressure on the Healthcare system

Some areas have also shown that co-responder teams can minimize ER visits for mental health crises. In addition, since more individuals get targeted help from highly trained clinicians, they are more likely to be linked with the services they need and end up in emergency departments.

Further, there is also evidence that co-responder teams reroute individuals who would typically end up in an ER to the more appropriate mental health hospitalization without the ER intermediary. So, again, in this area, hospital professionals can focus on medical emergencies that require their training and expertise.

Cost-Effective Interventions

The primary argument for co-responder teams is the compassionate benefit to the community as individuals receive the appropriate services and help they need. However, there is also evidence that these programs may end up being a long-term financial benefit to law enforcement agencies.

Since specific emergencies are diverted to programs with the specialized training required to manage them, police departments can focus mainly on emergencies that need them the most. Additionally, since it increases the likelihood that individuals will be linked with various services more quickly than before, individuals utilize emergency services less.

There are some tremendous successful co-responder stories. Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Johnson County, KS are two great examples.

Co-Responder Teams: A Smart Plan All-Around

Despite the difficulty of starting and building a co-responder program in the community, the evidence is almost overwhelming that these programs are such a benefit that not having them is a mistake for everyone. The benefits to the community at large, the individual themselves, law enforcement officers, and the criminal justice system are undeniably significant.

While it can be an enormous undertaking, in the long run, working together with multiple agencies is too beneficial to avoid.