Co-responder partnership between police and mental health professionals proves a boon to community; grant buys specially equipped vehicle
In August, her first month as the mental health co-responder assisting law enforcement, clinician Katharyn Burke performed seven evaluations.
That speaks to the necessity of the behavioral health co-responder program, Montrose Police Department Cmdr. Tim Cox said. Cox supervises the program for the police department, which first launched a behavioral health co-responder program in late spring, 2018.
The program is a partnership with the Center for Mental Health, which provides behavioral health professionals to respond with officers to police calls that involve a person experiencing a mental health crisis, and to help de-escalate the situation. The center uses state grants to pay the salary of the co-responder.
“The whole goal of the program is to reduce individuals in behavioral crisis who are going to the emergency room or crisis walk-in center — ultimately, the No. 1 thing is to keep them out of jail and get them the help they need,” Cox said.
A trained clinician like Burke, who is a licensed professional counselor, can use his or her skills to defuse potentially volatile situations, transport the individual in crisis to immediate care and can also conduct followup with the person. In turn, a police presence helps ensure the clinician’s safety.
Prior to the program, police officers could transport a person in crisis to the ER — and, after it opened, the Center for Mental Health’s crisis walk-in center — but they would not necessarily know whether the person received services and care, plus transporting the person took officers away from law enforcement duties.
“This is an amazing program. To be able to support our community through the co- responder model is a great benefit to our community members,” said Laura Byard, regional director for for the Center for Mental Health and the clinic’s co-responder program supervisor.
The co-responder model gets people support immediately and, ideally, helps them avoid future law enforcement contacts, or at least, decreases the level of such encounters, she said.
“It’s a quicker response. People naturally call 911 when there is an emergency, whether it’s mental health or not. It (program) allows us to get to them really quickly and address their needs,” Byard said.
Enhancing the program is the recent purchase of a specially equipped vehicle for the co- responder, which was possible because of the City of Montrose’s successful 2019 grant application for a Peace Officer Mental Health award from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.
The city received $42,745 to purchase the vehicle and radio equipment for it; a portion of the grant will also be used to train and certify five officers in peer support counseling.
The vehicle enables Burke to arrive and depart from calls separately, which serves to free up officer time, as well as to give the patient a better transport experience, Byard said.
“Hopefully, it’s a better experience for our community,” Byard said.
Because Burke is able to transport individuals in crisis, responding officers can remain on scene, if the situation requires them to do so.
The co-responder program is a necessity, Cox said. “The partnership between the Center for Mental Health, the Montrose Police Department and Montrose County Sheriff’s Office has been beneficial so far. We knew it was needed in our community,” he said.
Although officers receive a degree of training in crisis intervention, their primary job is law enforcement. A skilled clinician on scene helps them recognize a person in mental health crisis, versus someone who is just out to break the law, Cox also said.
“The ultimate goal is to keep those individuals (in crisis) out of jail,” he reiterated, saying the clinician is ultimately the professional best equipped to assist them.
“Our officers are trained in de-escalation and they do a very good job, but having her there (is helpful),” Cox said.
In the past, officers might know someone was in a crisis, and could take that person to the ER or the crisis center, but that didn’t always end the matter.
“We would never know what happened with that individual. We would see them on the street again and wonder what happened,” Cox said.
Having a professional who can follow up after the fact benefits everyone, Cox said. He added that the police are not informed of the details concerning a person’s contact with mental health services, because that is private medical information; however, officers now at least know a person has received care.
“It really is just a huge partnership,” he said, referring to the Center for Mental Health and law enforcement agencies.
“The main goal is to get that individual through that crisis and hopefully, they don’t end up committing a crime because of it,” Cox said.
“I’m just incredibly impressed with our law enforcement and their dedication to ensuring the best experience for those experiencing a mental health crisis,” Byard said.
“I think we’re lucky in our community to have such a great partnership.”
Peer support training, also being funded in part through the DOLA grant, is a benefit, Montrose Police Chief Blaine Hall said in written information.
Through the peer support model, officers are able to talk in confidential settings to other law enforcement members when they are having trouble dealing with job stressors.
Hall last year announced his intention of implementing peer support in order to prevent officer suicides and other crises. Nationwide, officer suicides in 2019 exceeded the number of line of duty deaths, although the MPD’s last reported officer suicide was in 2007. The
hope is that having a peer support program will help officers overcome the stigma of seeking help when they are affected by the hard things they see on the job.
“Our officers see and experience things no one should see in a lifetime,” Hall said in a press release Monday, announcing how the DOLA grant is being spent.
“Officers need access to trained law enforcement peer support specialists who understand the profession and can assist officers and their families when the job takes a toll on their mental health wellbeing.”