Law Enforcement: Shifting Behavioral Health Perspectives

Begun in 2016, the WellPower Co-Responder program works with the Denver Police Department responding to behavioral health-related calls, with the goal of reducing the possibility of criminal justice outcomes and providing crisis resolution involving people with mental health issues.  Since it started, the Crisis Intervention Response Unit (Co-Responder program) has been astoundingly successful. When police officers answered calls together with co-responders, 98% of encounters resulted in no arrest and 97% resulted in no ticket.

Though harder to measure with statistics, the police officers themselves have also seen major benefits by working alongside WellPower’s co-responders.

Changes in Perspective

For many police officers, training has a heavy focus on discerning what is right and wrong within the law – for example, what warrants an arrest or use of force and what doesn’t. The Co-Responder program opened a new path for officers, and with it, a wealth of new resources and perspectives.

Officer Scott Ingram, Denver District 3, and Officer Noelle Lovato, Denver District 1, have both worked with the Co-Responder program extensively since it began. They’ve also both shifted their viewpoints around behavioral health care and treatment since working with co-responders.

“I have a whole new outlook on my work,” said Officer Lovato. “Working with the co-responders has given me a new perspective on how to approach someone’s motives or ability to control their own actions. I’m much more open to understanding people across different situations. I’ve also developed language around empathy, which I deeply appreciate.”

Officer Ingram shared similar thoughts.

“I’m better able to identify problems individuals are facing, right off the bat, which cuts down on a lot of legality issues that may arise and allows for a better, healthier re-direction that suits their needs.”

New Tools Unlocked

Clinicians have been able to show police officers alternate approaches to navigating complex behavioral health situations, and have given police the tools to manage many of these interactions on their own.

“I’m more tentative with people and understanding of what the mental health crises are within Denver, as well as how to handle them for a more successful outcome for everyone,” said Officer Ingram. “I’ve been able to reduce my use of force and I’m better able to address the root cause of someone’s underlying issues.”

Officer Lovato added, “Even if we’re not actively riding with a co-responder in the car, we now have the tools and language to approach the community in a more empathetic way, which also helps us to build bridges with people in Denver.”

Empathy and Observation Build Community

Of all the takeaways that police have gathered by working with the co-responders, the most noteworthy are a more robust sense of empathy and an improved ability to observe a situation before acting.

Officer Lovato expressed that the co-responders have helped her better live up to her mission to protect and serve her community.

“We build trust by providing an option that doesn’t lead to arrest or the justice system,” she said. “Many times, people going through a crisis don’t need to be arrested – jail isn’t the best place for them. They need help with their mental well-being and support in that moment. The co-responders have given us the tools to give people that support.”

Officer Ingram explained that he’s learned how to talk to someone experiencing a behavioral health crisis and approach with the goal of helping them, rather than resorting to arrest first.

Looking to the Future

Officers Ingram and Lovato both became police officers because they wanted to help keep their communities safe. Thanks to the Co-Responder program, they now have critical tools to use in building a better future for Denver.

“I didn’t sign up to be a police officer to arrest people – I signed up to help people,” said Lovato. “The co-responders have given me what I need to help someone, and I’m really grateful for that.”