Law enforcement has been propelled into the national spotlight. Calls for police reform and changes to responses have been center stage. Suggestions for alternative responses to some calls have sprung up, and the idea of crisis services is nothing new. Recent calls for changes in many departments across the country have begun looking at starting crisis intervention teams or expanded responses. At the present time, there are no gold standards for crisis intervention within law enforcement. In fact, many departments are building crisis responses based on what other departments are using. The reality is that no one model fits all police departments. Clearly, we need to take a different approach to the development of crisis intervention with a focus on building crisis intervention, mental health and social service responses that fit each police department and its community’s needs.
Don’t overthink what “collaborative response” may look like — it’s a broad term. Collaboration helps improve the outcomes in general. Departments are not always equipped to handle mental health and social service calls — and accessing mental health services can be difficult, too. Law enforcement and mental health providers both need help, so naturally, the best thing to do is focus on a collaborative response.
There are several options available, and it can be hard to determine the best choice for a specific department or community. The most commonly used responses include:
- Co-responder units typically involve a clinician and law enforcement officer responding to calls together.
- The outreach model typically is seen with nonprofit agencies, and they are tasked with offering services to specific populations, most frequently with the homeless population.
- Social workers respond in place of police for certain calls. This is one of the newer responses.
- The social worker and paramedic mode partners a social worker and paramedic together to respond to certain predetermined calls.
How to choose?
The most frequent change includes a social worker responding in the place of law enforcement or the social worker and paramedic model. While these two models offer different perspectives, they are not always the most realistic or best options. In order to determine the best responses for a department or community, an assessment is needed to help figure out what the department needs and where a clinician can help.
When working with police departments, I do not focus on any specific models. For the most effective and highest quality of services, response programming should be designed to fit the department and the community.
Let’s talk size
Often, an assessment of a smaller police department typically finds that they need access to support but cannot maintain a full-time position. There are options, including partnering with a nearby department to share resources, a local social service agency or an “on-call” clinician model.
The most frequent size department in the United States is medium. This is a community of 15,000 to 75,000 people with a department of 40 to 150 officers, who average 15,000 or more calls a year. All departments that are small or medium size have a variety of need-based calls; those may include mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, children/elder concerns, juvenile issues and more.
Complex questions beget complex answers, right? Those departments have the greatest variability and usually require external entities to help provide the best response.
With larger departments, programming can be easier, but it also comes with more complexity. Some of the best results with larger departments will include some sort of co-responder unit; those are typically focused on calls that are in an active mental health crisis. Larger police departments require a higher level of collaborative integration to have the greatest likelihood of success. Collaboration is the key — otherwise, there will be too many layers, and it could impair progress.
Assessment is the first step
The real key is finding the variety of services for police departments that assist with enhancing the department’s response to community members’ needs when planning crisis programming. The assessment is the most important part of the process for creating crisis pro gramming that will be successful.
For example, our team gathers information from a variety of sources to develop potential plans for moving forward. The assessment reviews police department calls from the last six to 12 months and existing community programming. This stage of the process ends with a report to present the information gathered and two to four recommendations of programming to move forward. The police agency can then make an informed decision on what is the best fit for their department and the community.
That is followed by program,policy and procedure development. The last step is implementing the programming, which involves hiring clinicians, training clinicians and officers, and starting the program. The implementation stage is the most vital step — if clinicians and departments are not aligned, the programming will not be successful.
Take a breath — it can be done!
It’s easy to be overwhelmed. I don’t want to come off as a psycho-babbling therapist who is going to save the world riding in on her unicorn. This process is a lot of work, and when crisis services are integrated correctly with a focus on collaborative response, the benefits for the officers, the department and the community are great.
Over time, effective collaborative crisis services programming can help decrease use of force, injuries to officers, frequent calls for services, SWAT callouts and the chances of civil lawsuit and liability.
When services are collaboratively integrated, it helps officers build better and stronger working relationships with the community, and it also helps officers’ morale. With regular exposure to a well-trained mental health professional, officers have another tool in their toolbox to better help them serve the community more appropriately. Officers who have contact with mental health professionals have less mental health stigma. My favorite benefit is that officers who are working with mental health professionals on calls are getting in-the-field training and decreasing those subjects’ future contacts with law enforcement.
As seen in the September 2021 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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