This week’s supermarket shooting in Buffalo as well as last month’s subway shooting in Brooklyn have both raised serious concerns about the adequacy – or lack thereof – of mental health services in communities to address problems at their roots before they turn violent. But it’s something we’ve been grappling with for decades; one of the most notable incidents being the insanity plea taken by John Hinckley Jr., former President Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassin, who is set for unconditional release next month after living for decades under court-ordered restrictions.

Unfortunately, it’s often the case that individuals – or their caretakers – don’t address mental health issues until it’s too late. The reasons for this vary, but mental health issues should be treated with attention and seriousness, especially by those who make first contact with an individual in crisis – often law enforcement.

This challenge is compounded, however, by the fact that law enforcement officers are often left without adequate resources and training to handle mental health crises.

Fortunately, cities and localities across the country have been working on a solution to this issue for some time – putting what are known as “co-responder” models into effect. Co-responder models partner a social worker with a police officer and originated in 1992 with a collaboration between the New Haven Police Department and the Yale Child Study Center. This adaptable partnership later expanded thanks to a joint effort between the Providence Police Department and Family Service of Rhode Island in 2003.

These models vary in their specifics based on the needs, demographics and resources available in each city or locality. However, they generally involve sending trained behavioral clinicians or emergency medical personnel with law enforcement while they are on patrol. This provides a whole other set of skills on certain calls when police expertise is inadequate or simply inappropriate. It allows for an immediate trauma-informed response and assistance at the scene with follow-up support if needed.

Of course, a subway shooting or assassination attempt is not the best time for a mental health intervention. But, both Frank James and John Hinckley Jr. had existing, far less serious, criminal histories. If those initial police interactions had included trained co-responders, they may have received the support they needed before committing terrible acts of violence. New York City has actually been working to implement a co-responder model. While not the traditional model, in late 2020, New York City announced a pilot program where mental health and medical experts would replace the New York Police Department as the primary responders to mental crisis calls.

Framed as an interagency co-responder model, the Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division teams were routed to approximately 22% of the mental health calls where 911 dispatchers determined it was appropriate to do so. In other cases, such as those involving a weapon or a threat of imminent harm, the traditional police and emergency medical service response occurred. Early results of the pilot show that individuals receiving a B-HEARD response received a higher rate of assistance.

Successful co-responder models have great potential to improve public safety outcomes across the board. This includes the public safety needs of the community as well as the bodily safety of responders, police and civilians. Co-responder models have also been found to better use taxpayer dollars by reducing repeat callers and recidivism rates.

Approximately 20% of police service calls are for an individual suffering from a mental health or substance abuse crisis, and even more significantly, according to data collected by The Washington Post, almost 1 in 4 people killed by police since 2015 had a known mental health condition. Better outcomes and less violence would go a long way in improving police-community relations, a dynamic that plummeted to a record low following the death of George Floyd in 2020.

We are already seeing a positive impact from communities employing co-responder models. For example, there has been a reduction of average time on calls from 185 minutes to 136 minutes, increases in individuals engaging with available behavioral health services, reductions in psychiatric hospitalizations and reductions in police use of force from 12.1% to 4.2 %.

Whether in our own backyard, an urban area like Los Angeles County or a suburban area like Johnson County in Kansas, law enforcement should not always be the default response to a mental health crisis. Co-responders who are familiar with mental health issues and who can provide follow-up care should be a crucial part of police response. Responding with empathy and compassion is sometimes more important – and more beneficial to public safety – than responding with force. Most importantly, these additional steps today could prevent national tragedies tomorrow.

Image: neil