Thinking of Starting a Co-Responder Program? 5 Questions to Consider

In recent months, communities have been looking closely at the role of law enforcement, and many have been looking at co-responder programs for the first time or with renewed interest.

In a co-responder program, behavioral health specialists work in partnership with law enforcement to respond to mental health needs that would otherwise have to be handled in the hospital emergency room or the criminal justice system. A co-responder program can support law enforcement with training, resources and staff to prevent dangerous situations and connect residents to the treatment and services they need.

“Officers already wear so many hats,” said Jessica Murphy, Co-Responder Team Leader with Johnson County Mental Health Center (JCMHC) in Kansas. “We want to reduce the burden on them so they can focus on their true role and do the things the community needs them to do.”

Co-responder programs make sense for both law enforcement and the communities they serve. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year, most of whom are not violent criminals and are awaiting trial or serving brief sentences for minor crimes. Incarceration exacerbates their illness because of the lack of treatment in jail and the further instability it introduces into people’s lives.

It is much more humane and cost-effective to connect people with needed services before a situation escalates to include an arrest and jail time. It also enables people to get treatment so they can better navigate the criminal justice system and advocate for themselves. Co-responder programs can fill that role. But communities need to decide what type of co-responder program is right for them. Here are five questions to ask as you are considering your program.

  1. What services will your co-responder program provide, and who will you serve?

Mental illness and substance use disorders vary widely, as do the needs of municipalities. Some programs focus on officer training. Others focus on de-escalation at the scene and criminal legal system diversion. JCMHC discovered that their Co-Responders could make the biggest impact by helping people with severe and persistent mental illness avoid hospitalization – voluntary or involuntary. They focus on finding a way to have co-responders assess needs on-site and connect people to the right services.

“We can save people the trouble and expense of a hospital visit if all they need is outpatient help,” said Murphy. “If someone does need to go to the hospital, we try to find ways to save the officer time and make the experience less traumatic for the person. Providing the intervention in the community, we can offer a better assessment, deescalate the situation and keep people in the community. Our motto is ‘the right intervention at the right time by the right individual.’”

JCMHC has also provided a 24-hour crisis line service to its citizens for decades, giving residents another option for seeking help and support rather than going directly to law enforcement or the hospital when they are not needed to resolve a crisis. Co-responders also do outreach to follow up after an incident – a service people don’t usually get after going to the ER. By ensuring people that get connected to needed services after the crisis, they can help prevent recurring crises and 911 calls.

Many co-responder programs also offer training for first responders, especially law enforcement, for handling situations in which a mental health professional cannot be present.

  • How will mental health specialists be involved?

In some co-responder programs, mental health professionals ride along with law enforcement in a specific area of the city or county and are readily available to provide any services needed during the shift. In other programs, co-responders are dispatched when they are needed and meet officers at the scene. This model allows the program to serve the whole area rather than having co-responders tied up with one officer.

Johnson County Co-Responder monitors the computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) and the radio to get a sense of where they may be needed. Sometimes law enforcement requests a co-responder, but co-responders can also self-dispatch when it looks like help will be needed. Either way, the co-responders are considered secondary responders rather than first responders, coming on to the scene only once it has been secured.

  • How will you fund your co-responder program?

A partnership between law enforcement and mental health providers might make logical sense, but these functions are funded differently, which can pose a funding challenge. Grant funding is a great way to plan a co-responder program and get it started. But if a community decides that a co-responder is a worthwhile endeavor, they must make their commitment to it by providing some funding.

Some programs are funded by more than one municipality, or with a mix of state, county and city or town funds. This is a good way to get economies of scale for the project, but fund management can sometimes be a challenge. It will help to know something about blending and braiding funds from a source like this toolkit by the Association of Government Accountants.

Some programs also build public-private partnerships with hospital systems and others who have an interest in diverting a person with mental illness from the hospital or the criminal justice system. Think broadly about your stakeholders and how you can work together to meet the needs of your particular community.

  • How will you build partnerships?

Consider who your partners might be and how many partners you want to involve. And remember that in co-responder work, trust and respect are just as important as funding for success.

When you start to talk with potential law enforcement and other partners, help them understand how this program solves their problems. Be knowledgeable about both the challenges and benefits of implementing a co-responder program in your community.

The Johnson County Co-Responder program is managed by Johnson County Mental Health Center but relies on numerous partnerships to bring co-responder services to communities and even to a school. For Murphy, the investment of time to build partnerships in Johnson County has been well worth it. “We work with 12 law enforcement partners, each with its own culture and ways of working. Trying to come together as one is a challenge but it’s rewarding when you see it happen,” Murphy explains. “It’s amazing when we align with partners that understand the difference it makes to avoid jail and stop the cycle of repeat arrests.”

  • How will you share data and track outcomes?

One challenge of involving diverse partners from the very different sectors of government, nonprofits and healthcare is sharing data and information. How will you communicate and share information? The CAD may be a good place to start by sharing information about 911 calls and incidents, but few of these systems have the capability to track people over time rather than incidents. How will you collect and securely share information for follow-up treatment? How will you make referrals to services? A platform like Julota’s can connect data systems across organizations and sectors, ensuring compliance with each sector’s privacy and security laws.

You will also want to consider what data will help you discover and demonstrate the value of your co-responder program. Depending on your community’s goals, you may want to track ER diversions, criminal legal system diversions and other outcomes for calls that involve mental illness, including the use of force.

A co-responder program is not a magical solution to all law enforcement challenges, but it can be a powerful tool in the law enforcement toolbelt. Co-responder programs can and should be tailored to meet the specific needs of a community. Considering these questions is the first step in creating a just-right co-responder program where you live and serve.