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Cops ARE Mental Health Workers

The idea for Co-responder Consulting hatched in 2015 when I was developing and managing Boulder County's Project EDGE, and I first began to see an opportunity to change the world. Since the beginning of the project, I had a not-so-hidden agenda: by role-modeling quality mental health intervention--right there, on-scene, in front of police officers--I hoped that EDGE staff could change the way officers felt about working with mental health issues in their communities.

Once I saw that happening, I began to see another opportunity--an opportunity for me. An opportunity for us--for the rest of the community. If police can see mental health issues and community members with mental illness differently, then can't we, the community members and law enforcement partners, begin to see law enforcement and their true role in our community differently?

Cops are mental health workers! When there is a mental health emergency, who gets the call? Whether we like it or not, mental health intervention is a huge part of working as a sworn officer. And they do not have the resources, the training, or the bandwidth to do their job and a crisis workers job, too.

Part of managing the EDGE project was to take what was learned to the larger community. I’ve worked closely with several departments and I’ve been to briefings anywhere from 5:00 am through 10:30 pm, hundreds of officers. As of this writing, not one officer has ever disagreed with the following statement: Between 70% and 90% of law enforcement responses involve behavioral health, one way or another.

That's not fair. And it doesn't work very well. The world starts to de-escalate and to calm down once police are no longer solely responsible for solving problems that are about mental health intervention rather than law enforcement.

I learned over time that cops, generally speaking, went into their field for the same reason I went into mine: they want to help. When you are trying to help someone, and over and over, everywhere you turn, you get a hand in your face--too drunk, too suicidal, too violent, too crazy, too human--well, after a while, many officers get frustrated with that part of the job. Feeling alone against what appears to be a broken, heartless system can be exhausting. Don’t our law enforcement officers--and our community!--deserve better?

When we make a change like this, sure, we’re saving money. It costs a lot to incarcerate a person, and once you book a psychotic person into a jail, it can be very difficult to get them out again. An extended stay like that is expensive, and our communities are not well served by incarcerating our community members with mental illness. So when we address that problem, that's a good move forward.

But when we create a well-designed co-responder program we are accomplishing even more: we are improving our communities, our own quality of life--and we are standing up for our police.

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