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Safe Communities

Column: Partners in Safety
Date Published
February 6, 2024

Employing mental health clinicians to improve police outcomes

Law enforcement officers today are responding to calls where many residents are experiencing mental or behavioral health emergencies. While most officers receive Crisis Intervention Training, which focuses on how law enforcement should respond to people with mental illness, mental and behavioral health calls take policing time away from crime reduction efforts. Additionally, these calls are better suited for mental health professionals.

The Denver Police Department recognized this issue in 2016 and developed the Co-Responder Program. The co-responders are licensed mental health clinicians who work in close partnership with the Denver Police Department to respond to calls involving people who have mental illness, co-occurring disorders, and substance use issues.

A more appropriate response

Photograph of Carleigh Sailon
Carleigh Sailon

“Police have been tasked with too much historically. They've really been tasked with responding to behavioral health issues because we didn't have a better option. I think it's important for communities to create these additional options to really meet the needs of the types of calls that are coming into the 911 system. I think that this provides our community members with the more appropriate response and allows our officers to focus on enforcement and investigation and keeping our community safe,” said Carleigh Sailon, Project Manager, Law Enforcement, for The Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The addition of the clinical team showed success in its first year. According to data from the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, which helps oversee this program, the co-responder units answered 1,725 calls, and only 4 percent resulted in a citation or arrest; the vast majority were connected to mental health care and treatment. By treating the underlying issues and not criminalizing mental health emergencies, Denver Police have been able to help build community trust.

Supporting police recruitment and retention

Police departments nationwide need help with officer recruitment and retention. A national survey of police executives conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found this challenge was attributed to extreme stresses that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to policing, the decline in police officers' morale, and public sentiment towards the police.

Providing officers with additional supports when responding to behavioral and mental health emergencies could help reduce strain on police departments, increase morale, and support officer retention.

“Having clinicians work with officers might help with recruitment and retention because the clinicians can help remove some of the burden of responding to mental health calls. Officers are already dealing with so many calls for service that having clinicians to take the lead on mental health calls for service can lighten the load and help retain officers.” — Carleigh Sailon

Increased community trust

"I think that was one thing that we saw in Denver was that when a social worker showed up with a Denver police officer or a clinician and a paramedic showed up on the scene, the community felt like their needs had been met and that Denver cared enough about what was going on to ensure that the appropriate responders showed up," Sailon said.

Not only has the Denver community at large embraced the program, but the police department has as well.

“Having so much exposure to the clinicians destigmatized mental health to officers. Having access to the clinicians and seeing what behavioral health intervention looks like helped them be more accepting of that." — Carleigh Sailon

"There would be days where one of us would go in, and an officer would say, ‘Hey, I'll take the clinician today,’ and you found out that officer volunteered to take you because their child or their family member was struggling with a behavioral health issue and they wanted to sort of get your take on it or see if you had any advice."

In addition to the positive outcomes, Denver found the program cost less than officials anticipated, and the department has been able to grow the program. In 2018 and 2019, the city of Denver set aside $1 million for the program but said the actual expense in 2018 was $458,000, with the help of Medicaid reimbursements. With the cost savings, the department and has grown their program from 4 clinicians to 45.

"I would encourage local governments to try a pilot program, collect data, see how it works with your officers, and work with your community. I can almost guarantee that the outcomes of that pilot program would be incredibly positive, and that these jurisdictions would want to expand those programs," Sailon said.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance Connect and Protect: Law Enforcement Behavioral Health Response Program supports 92 programs like the Co-Responder program nationwide.

To learn more, listen to the full Justice Today podcast episode:

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Date Published: February 6, 2024

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