Why We Love Co-Responder Programs (And You Should, Too!)

Only the worst of everything is on the nightly news, daily newspapers, or online articles. It is easy to look around and feel discouraged about everything, but arguably, the events that get the most press are where law enforcement interactions have adverse outcomes. If you’re honest, you can probably list those names without thinking too hard.

However, you probably haven’t heard much about how law enforcement and behavioral health work together to improve things. One of the ways that communities are improving is through the use of co-responder programs.

What is a Co-Responder Program?

Most people are familiar with traditional law enforcement; individuals in any crisis call for emergency services, and police are on the scene. This scene may be a call for a domestic violence situation, a burglary, or for someone who is reporting suicidal thoughts.

These three things require entirely different reactions and training in very complex responses. For example, it is almost foolish to expect one person to respond to an armed robbery and then turn around and be able to respond appropriately to someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

Recognizing the complexity of current law enforcement requirements, communities began looking at options to help solve the needs of all situations. A solution for many communities was adopting the co-responder program.

Co-responder programs are organized in a few different ways depending on the needs and resources of the community. For example, programs may consist of teams of mental health professionals and law enforcement that ride together to answer all calls that may involve mental health or substance abuse.

Programs can also be set up where officers respond to all calls and call out mental health workers when it involves a mental health crisis or substance abuse situation. Additionally, some programs identify appropriate cases and have the mental health experts respond to the crisis independently and call in support as needed.

Co-responder programs integrate the help of emergency medical services with law enforcement and mental health services. This merge requires a dedication to teamwork and open communication.

One way to ensure open communication is through a cloud-based information sharing platform that maintains security while allowing open data communication. One such platform is Julota.

Julota is HIPAA, 42 CFR part 2, CJIS-Criminal Justice Information System compliant. Additionally, Julota can interface with most law enforcement CAD systems and most EHRs. Due to these reasons and others, it is the perfect complement to any community attempting to build a well-connected and successful program.

Who has Success with Co-Responder Programs?

Law enforcement and communities across the country are experiencing significant success using the co-responder format in their communities. Many of these communities have had to adapt the programs to fit their area’s specific needs and use the Julota platform to help document progress and prove their outcomes.

Douglas County, Colorado

Douglas County is home to a co-responder program that has learned to bridge the gaps in their diverse community.

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. It consists of four teams of mental health and law enforcement officer partners who patrol the county and manage services for its citizens in need.

These teams all use the cloud-based Julota platform to enable seamless communication of essential information in the field and the office to ensure that any individuals they connect with are served in the best way possible. Interactions are documented and followed up on as necessary. Between 2017 and 2020, these teams served over 2500 individuals; there have been 586 emergency departments 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.

Pitkin County, Colorado

Co-responder programs work well for large rural areas too. For example, Pitkin County, Colorado, also employs a co-responder program called PACT. This program involved mental health workers, law enforcement, community mental health, a case manager, and a peer support specialist. The program has grown exponentially and is widely appreciated by the community.

The PACT program manager acknowledges the difficulty of covering three different law enforcement jurisdictions and a larger rural area and how the cloud-based data platform Julota has been fundamental to their rapid success and measurement of efficacy and needs. Clear and open communication is essential to all relationships; that includes relationships between service organizations trying to work together to better their community.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Before you think that co-responder programs can only be successful in the state of Colorado, travel across the country to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, one of the country’s oldest co-responder programs.

The Chapel Hill Crisis unit was established in 1973, decades before most other programs in the country. Chapel Hill also utilizes a peer support specialist program; these individuals are in recovery from substance abuse disorders themselves, have completed programs, and may have even had previous experiences with the crisis program as individuals previously helped. Peer specialists assist in assessing individuals who are overdose survivors or who are otherwise struggling with substance abuse.

The crisis unit provides many services: assisting with psychiatric emergency services, 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 how the integration of mental health professionals and law enforcement can have a substantial positive impact on an entire community.

The Chapel Hill team responded to 93 in-person calls and 200 phone call situations in one month alone, creating the space that law enforcement and emergency services need to respond better to all crises in the community.

Why are Co-Responder Programs so Successful?

There are a few reasons co-responder programs are so successful (thus why we love them), and most of them are honestly common-sense reasons to anyone with experience working with people.

To understand one reason, you only need to look to the adage “two heads are better than one.” In this situation, two perspectives are better than one; marrying mental health professionals’ viewpoints with law enforcement helps both understand problems better.

The mental health professional can offer ways to look at human behavior and interact with individuals struggling with mental health crises helpfully. In comparison, the law enforcement officer can provide perspective on legal and safety issues that are also important to consider.

As always, for two heads to be an improvement on one, communication has to be open, honest, and respectful from all involved. The problem with many communities trying to adequately serve citizens with significant mental health needs without a co-responder program is the considerable lack of communication between entities, and all critical information is kept separate. Bridging the divide and sharing viewpoints is a significant key to success.

Another fundamental reason for co-responder program success can be tied to another old piece of wisdom “many hands make light work.” Any time more people are involved in the same goal, the goal becomes easier to reach. Each individual becomes responsible for less and, in this instance, can become more specialized to serve the community in their area in a better way.

One person working on building something cannot make nearly as fast progress as four working on it, or eight people. Communities with co-responder programs recognize this and use this knowledge to help all citizens in their communities reach success.

Law enforcement’s often-stated goal is to serve and protect their community. This mission is a vast job made more difficult by the complicated nature of community needs. Mental health struggles are on the rise worldwide, especially during and after the pandemic and rounds of nationwide and worldwide lockdowns. Substance abuse is increasing, partly due to untreated mental health struggles and partly due to a lack of education and resources in communities.

In traditional community models, all crises fall squarely on the shoulders of overstretched law enforcement officers.

The co-responder model allows these responsibilities to be spread to the other hands in the community who have the expertise to share. As a result, it will make the burden lighter on all professionals involved and the road to success faster.

That is why we love co-responder programs, and you should too!

To learn more about Co-responder programs, visit the International Co-Responder Alliance. To learn how to help your co-responder program overcome the obstacle of open communication with all community resources, learn about Julota here!