Huntsville Police co-responder program paying dividends in helping those in crisis

single-meta-cal February 3, 2022

There’s nothing predictable about public safety, and no one knows that better than a police officer. Almost every 911 call is made by someone who has witnessed a life-changing event or it’s happening to them.

Though she’s not a police officer, Laurin Mitchell understands the unpredictable nature of law enforcement. She’s one of two full-time, master’s-level mental health professionals who rides with Huntsville Police’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) certified officers.

Over the past six months, Mitchell has responded to dozens of calls from people experiencing a mental health crisis. Just recently, she and an officer responded to a call about a woman threatening to harm herself. It was the latest in a string of encounters with HPD.

Co-responder Laurin Mitchell sitting next to a police officer in a patrol vehicle.

Laurin Mitchell, one of the two co-responders, rides with HPD officers to assist with mental health-related calls.

“I was able to talk with her and be familiar with her background because of my role with WellStone,” she said. “We were able to get her inpatient treatment, so she could get the help she needed to be there for her family.”

Growing the partnership

To further the partnership between the City, HPD and WellStone, the Huntsville City Council voted in May 2021 to fund a co-responder program to address mental health-related calls. The goal was to improve response and provide alternatives that divert citizens away from jail and toward the health care they need.

“The co-responder program allows me to help different families who don’t know how to best help loved ones in a mental health crisis,” Mitchell said. “We can respond to where these individuals are located and provide resources to help get their loved ones the help they need.”

Mitchell’s job doesn’t stop there. She also helps people enter treatment programs and follows up with them.

“It’s rewarding to see these clients after they’ve received the needed help,” she said. “They’re able to have a stable conversation and job.”

Jonathan Boyd, an HPD CIT-certified officer, works directly with the co-responders. He said having a direct line to WellStone has been beneficial to the department.

“These clinicians know the ins and outs of the mental health process and what can and can’t be done to assist people,” he said.

How it works

When dispatched to a call, an HPD officer first evaluates the situation. If deemed safe, the co-responder will accompany the officer to contact the person in crisis. If there are safety concerns, the officer will make sure there is no danger to the co-responder and then make introductions.

“When we show up to a call, people often get nervous because they think if a police officer is there, something bad might happen,” Boyd said.

Because clinicians are dressed more casually, people in crisis are more likely to relax and engage than they would with a uniformed officer.

Since the program started, many officers have learned from the clinicians. For example, Boyd said the clinicians can explain more about the types of medications the person in crisis is taking or not taking, and how that affects their mental state.

“As officers, we don’t have extensive knowledge about medication and possible side effects,” he said. “In my short time riding with a co-responder, it’s given us opportunities to learn the impact it can have on people.”

Success story

WellStone CEO Jeremy Blair hopes to expand the program because of the success he’s seen. He said prevention doesn’t make headlines, but added good things are happening behind the scenes.

“These situations get diffused before they reach the level of tragedy,” he said.

He explained the work of clinicians and officers has surpassed expectations on many fronts.

“The therapists appreciate having the officers on-site when responding to calls,” Blair said. “It’s automatic safety and security on scenes, and in turn, the officers are also learning de-escalation skills from therapists firsthand.”

The two clinicians selected to ride with HPD officers were employed by WellStone in different roles before the program began.

“Prior to starting this job, I didn’t have any experience riding along with a police officer,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it’s been very rewarding, and they go well above and beyond to keep us safe.”

Click here to learn more about community resources for those in crisis.