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Police, Mental Health Professionals Partner to Improve 911 Response

Police, Mental Health Professionals Partner to Improve 911 Response

All across the country, some local governments are beginning to reimagine the functions of law enforcement in thier communities. Whether the impetus is to reallocate services,  implement social justice initiatives, or focus on de-escalating potentially dangerous situations involving individuals with behavioral health or substance abuse, increasingly, jurisdiction are considering models that pair local law enforcement with trained mental health professionals to answer non-violent crisis calls.

This blog will look at the co-responder model that brings social service responders and mental health professionals front and center into the 911 crisis response.

The Co-Responder Model

Normally a call to 911 to report a problem — for example, an individual shouting and acting erratically in public — would bring police officers to the scene. If the party refused to cooperate with the officers — and people with behavioral issues often find it difficult to comply with instructions — the interaction could escalate. Instead of sending armed officers to respond to that call, the city might dispatch a co-responder team to diffuse the situation and connect the individual with services, preventing the interaction from escalating into violence and diverting people from jail and into care or treatment. It also frees up police resources to focus on more serious violent crime.

In a joint report from the National League of Cities and Policy Research, Inc., the co-responder model framework is described as:

Featur(ing) a specially trained team that includes at least one law enforcement officer and one mental health or substance abuse professional responding jointly to situations in which a behavioral health crisis is likely to be involved, often in the same vehicle, or arriving on scene at generally the same time.

Local Examples

There are few different approaches to a co-responder program, such as

  • An officer and a Mental Health Professional (MHP) ride together in the same vehicle for an entire shift,
  • The MHP is called to the scene by an officer, and the call is handled together, or
  • Dispatchers deploy an unarmed MHP or MHP team, not armed officers, for certain calls.

On scene, the team works not only to de-escalate the situation, but also provides behavioral health screening and assessment, along with referral or linkage to needed services. The planning at the end of the encounter depends on a number of unique factors, and outcomes can range from leaving the individual with necessary resources, transporting the individual to a hospital or walk-in clinic, and providing support and resources for family members and others. Programs also follow up with individuals after they leave the initial encounter.

Statewide, there are several models of co-responder teams, many of them multijurisdictional. Here are just a few.  

MHPs Embedded with Law Enforcement

North Sound RADAR Navigator program: RADAR (Response Awareness, De-escalation and Referral) is a joint effort by police departments in Bothell, Kirkland, Lake Forest Park, Kenmore, and Shoreline to address the rights and needs of individuals with behavioral health issues and/or developmental disabilities. RADAR deploys an embedded Navigator alongside officers trained in crisis intervention to respond to 911 calls when social services are needed. The Navigator also works with patrol officers to co-respond and provide follow up to persons with behavioral health issues.The Navigator will provide non-crisis-call-related outreach to individuals in the community and conduct crisis intervention training for law enforcement teams. The program is partially funded through the King County’s Mental Illness and Drug Dependency tax fund and the Behavioral Health Sales Tax Fund. It received early funding through the King County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance Smart Policing Initiative, and a Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs grant.

Additional examples: Port Angeles REdisCOVERY program, Spokane County Community Diversion Unit, Yakima Designated Crisis Responders, Skagit County, and the Vancouver Enhanced Mobile Crisis Response Team.

MHP’s Available On-Call

Kitsap County: The Behavioral Health Navigator Program has its roots in Poulsbo but has since spread to become a cooperative effort with Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Port Orchard, and the Kitsap County Sheriff’s office. Navigators are hired as police department employees and are primarily called in after police contact occurs to follow up with individuals, families, and caregivers. Navigators work with individuals to proactively identify treatment options, overcome obstacles to accessing services, and improve communication between the criminal justice and behavioral health systems. The Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office also has a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) staffed by specially trained officers who respond to crisis calls involving individuals with possible mental health issues. The team serves as a countywide resource by designing training programs for law enforcement agencies and identifying gaps in resources and services. A member of the CIT team is available for crisis response 24 hours a day. In 2019 the program was funded primarily through the Kitsap County Treatment Sales Tax, with additional funding coming from participating cities. The cities also sought external funding (grants and donations) to support initial program rollout in their jurisdictions.

Additional examples: Lakewood Behavioral Health Contact Team.

MHPs, Not Police, Answer Non-Crisis Calls

Olympia: The Crisis Response Unit (Unit) is a partnership between the Olympia Police Department and Recovery Innovations International, a local human services organization. The Unit is contracted by the police department and is on call daily from 7 AM to 9 PM. Instead of sending armed officers to respond to nonviolent incidents caused by someone experiencing mental illness, addiction, or homelessness, the city dispatchers send the Unit. The Unit is also contacted by social service providers to assist with outreach to individuals in homeless encampments. The program’s $550,000 budget is funded through a public safety levy, which was passed by voters in 2017. Olympia also runs a “familiar faces” program, which pairs peer navigators with people who have frequent run-ins with law enforcement, to connect these community members with housing, addiction treatment, and other resources.

Additional examples: Eugene (OR) Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, Seattle Health One, and Pierce County Mobile Community Intervention Response Team.

Conclusion and Resources

When implemented well, the co-responder model has the potential to decrease expensive arrests and jail admissions for individuals in behavioral health crisis; reduce the strain on the judicial system; improve ties to community services; provide more immediate responses to crisis situations; and strengthen post-crisis follow up by working with family members and caregivers to reduce the likelihood of a new crisis situation arising. And by establishing trust and follow up with frequent users of 911, co-responder teams can reduce the number of repeat calls from those individuals.

Here are additional materials about co-responder models.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Leah LaCivita

Leah joined MRSC as a Communications Coordinator in the fall of 2016 and manages MRSC’s blog and webinar training program, in addition to developing website content.