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The Cascade Effect

Every now and then, we learn something remarkable; we discover a single move--simple, comparatively inexpensive, and straightforward--that changes everything. Personal computers are an example; the internet is another. Wireless technology would qualify. The discovery of microorganisms was a game changer: wash your hands, sterilize your water and you’ll enhance your survival. Antibiotics and immunization soon followed. The idea that humans have rights; racial equality; trauma-informed mental health interventions; these are simple ideas that eluded us for millennia.

Co-responder programs are like that.

Awhile back, a friend sent a video that I found fascinating: “How Wolves Change Rivers”:

If you have time, please take a moment to watch this fascinating five minute account of how a simple administrative move can change an entire ecosystem. The video is an account of the change that took place when a small number of wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

To shorten an amazing story, the wolves changed where the deer and elk preferred to spend their time--they began to avoid the valleys and gorges where they were more easily caught by the wolves. The wolves had been gone for 70 years, and in their absence the deer and elk had overgrazed those areas, leading to erosion and reduced habitat for other animals.

Once the wolves were re-introduced, the vegetation in those areas began to regenerate at a remarkable rate. This led to the return of birds and beavers (who also radically change the environment, creating habitat for fish, otters and muskrats). The wolves also lowered the coyote population, leading to an increase in rabbits and mice, which brought more raptors, foxes and weasels.

But the return of the wolves even changed the shape of the rivers, because the healthier vegetation held the shape of the banks during times of high water.

Co-responder programs are like that, too. We can change the very landscape of our communities.

Mike Butler is the Public Safety Chief in Longmont, Colorado. Mike had an idea awhile back, and I had the privilege to watch as he and his staff made it real. They had a belief in the members of their community; they believed that volunteers could support community members struggling with addiction issues in parallel with traditional treatment providers.

Their department created the Angel Initiative:

In short: when appropriate, they divert criminal charges related to addiction and mental illness into opportunities to provide treatment, and to offer support from the community. Longmont now has over 80 treatment providers from around the Front Range of Denver to help support a population of a little over 90,000.

Angel liaisons support the participant, helping them navigate the complex system, making referrals, and offering an understanding ear. The Angel Initiative has Angel Employers who have agreed to provide employment for a set time to a participant in recovery; there are volunteer therapists and providers who offer addiction and other treatment. It has been amazing to watch this community step up to meet its own needs. The program has helped about 65 people as of this writing.

Mike was presenting about the Angel Initiative at the Colorado Behavioral Health Council last October in Breckenridge Colorado. I attended, and sat in the front row. After Mike had finished and offered to take questions, I put up a hand:

“Mike, when we started Project EDGE (Boulder County’s co-responder program), we were diverting charges and referring to treatment then, too. We got a lot of push-back from the community about diverting charges; it looked to folks, even state legislators, like we were just letting people off the hook after they committed a crime.” Mike said:

“Oh, yeah. It’s a lot easier this time around.”

He started to take the next question. But I said:

“Wait a minute: are you saying the attitude of the whole community toward mental health and law enforcement changed after Project EDGE?”

Mike just bumped my fist and took the next question, leaving me sitting with my jaw hanging open.

If, as policy makers, we can see how a simple move like offering mental health support to law enforcement changes how officers and the community experience one another, then can't we see our opportunity to create a Trophic Cascade--a top-down shift in the whole landscape?

Slowly, the whole community changes; the culture changes; other communities see the change and want it, too; and with effective implementation of a simple idea, we slowly make the world a better place.

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