Co-responders program puts two mental health experts on police force
In 2015 Arvada’s Chief of Police, Don Wick, noticed his officers getting bogged down by callers looking for something the department couldn’t provide them. Time and resources that the department didn’t have were being spent on mental health cases they weren’t qualified to handle.
Wick realized his officers were caught in a cycle — they were responding to cases that were rooted in deep-seated mental health issues, and being unable to provide the necessary long-term assistance, they would do what they could, close the case and receive the same phone call weeks later.
Crime analysts from the Arvada police department found that so far in 2016, APD has responded to 510 mental health assist calls with an average amount of 54 minutes spent on each call.
“We were expending a lot of resources with our police officers trying to help folks that were in crisis. The thing is, while they are CIT trained, they’re not professional mental health workers,” Wick said. “I wanted to find a way to help the officers in the field so that they were not spending so much time on calls in an area where we are not necessarily experts. I also wanted to find a way to get people plugged into services right away so that we didn’t have repetitive calls from the same person; that we could actually get them plugged into services so the outcome didn’t have to result in criminal charges or arrest just to get them help.”Wick began doing some research on police departments and mental health centers across the country and was inspired to reach out to the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, with its main office in Wheat Ridge.
The two organizations formed a partnership dubbed the Co-responders Program through which two mental health professionals from the Jefferson Center were placed within the Arvada Police Department to respond to dispatch calls alongside the officers. The idea is that these co-responders will be able to recognize a mental health issue on the spot and will be equipped to deescalate the situation and provide the help needed for long-term assistance.
“Jefferson Center was very excited and very happy to do this collaborative program,” said Emily Richardson, coordinator of the adult criminal justice program at the Jefferson Center. “We feel like our citizens need to have some safety nets in place. There is a group of folks in the community who may not realize they have a mental illness, or may not realize that it’s a problem, and police are coming into contact with them and arrest isn’t always the right action. Sometimes these folks aren’t willing or able to get help on their own. So we are filling the gap within the system. Both Jefferson Center and Arvada felt the need for this.”
When a case comes in that requires attention to a mental health condition, it will be placed in the hands of the co-responders who will get the caller involved with the right resources. The co-responders will also follow-up with the people involved in these cases to help eliminate repeat calls.
“We’re here to connect the citizens of Arvada with direct resources when applicable,” said Kelsey Schwartz, one of Arvada’s co-responders. “We’re just another tool in an officer’s tool belt.”
The Arvada Police Department now has two fully licensed clinicians working in office: Schwartz, who has a master’s degree in social work, and her partner Paige Toma, who has her master’s in marriage and family therapy.
“A lot of the time, these people with mental health issues aren’t particularly doing any harm or committing crimes, but they do need help,” Toma said. “Hopefully down the line they aren’t needing to call the police anymore because they will have the resources to help them long-term.”
While the initial formation of the program began mid-2015, it didn’t kick into action until about October. Schwartz and Toma both started working at the police department in September.
“The police have taken this very well and have been wanting to help citizens for a long time with their mental health needs but couldn’t spend a lot of time working with them,” Schwartz said. “They can now help the citizens by simply reaching within their own department.”
With Schwartz and Toma focusing on mental health cases in the community, Wick hopes to see his officers relieved of some pressure and the mental health needs of the community being better addressed.
“The police department really does make learning about mental health a priority,” Toma said. “It’s cool to be in a community that tries to have the understanding that some people have mental health issues and they need help and it’s not a punitive view, it’s more like, ‘let’s see if we can get them the help that they need.’ ”
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