Co-responder models in policing: Better serving communities

While co-responding is not a new practice, it is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to working with crime victims


This article originally appeared in the September 2021 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Co-responder models | 9/11 exhibit | Building community TRUST, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions

By Dean M. Esserman

Over the last 30 years, a growing number of agencies have increasingly adopted police-mental health collaboration (PMHC) programs, also known as co-responder models, to provide an enhanced response to victims of crime or people in the throes of an emotional or behavioral health crisis.

Utilizing this model, law enforcement and mental health clinicians respond to these calls for service together, providing an improved and immediate response to crisis situations by conducting a more accurate needs assessment on scene for the person in distress, and connecting them and their families to community-based resources.

A victim's journey does not end with a 9-1-1 call 

While co-responding is certainly not new, it is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to working with victims of crimes.

The journey of a victim does not end with a simple 9-1-1 call, in fact, it is only the beginning of what may be a long journey toward recovery. As law enforcement and community leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that our efforts are not limited to a law enforcement response but rather include holistic victim services and support.

My first experience with PMHC programs came in 1992 when I was part of a team that built a partnership between the New Haven Police Department and the Yale Child Study Center that focused on children exposed to violence. This collaboration led to the creation of the Child Development/Community Policing Program, in which law enforcement officers and clinicians established training and orientation sessions for one another and worked to establish and implement joint protocols. Eventually, the partnership evolved into responding together to calls for service. The work we did in New Haven was later recognized by the White House, which designated the Yale Child Study Center as the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence.

Go Team partnership

In 2003, serving as Providence Police Chief, I received a call from Family Service of Rhode Island (FSRI) CEO Margaret Holland McDuff who asked if I would be interested in working with them to address the needs of children exposed to trauma and violence. I arranged for a team of clinicians from FSRI along with a team of Providence police officers to travel to New Haven as guests of the Yale Child Study Center for a week. Upon their return, the Providence team built a collaborative model, which came to fruition in 2004, with the implementation of the Go Team Partnership program.

As part of the Go Team, we worked to ensure that we were serving victims of crime more fully. From the initial response call, the team provided immediate assistance, referrals and continued support. The co-responder model was successfully adopted in Providence and grew to include court proceedings, financial assistance, and emotional support.

Over the course of the last 17 years, Go Team has taken a life of its own. It has created a better service model for victims in need and fostered better relationships with the public, strengthened trust and bonds between law enforcement and survivors, and raised awareness about co-responder model programs across the country.

“Communities and local leaders can use the model to develop a crisis continuum of care that results in the reduction of harm, arrests, and use of jails and emergency departments and that promotes the development of and access to quality mental and substance use disorder treatment and services,” writes Ashley Krider and Regina Huerter of Policy Research Inc. and Kirby Gaherty and Andrew Moore, National League of Cities.

Sometimes a joint response is needed

Police officers touch families every day – and to see officers as only enforcers of the law truly misses the point of what officers can and should do to help their communities and what, in fact, communities need from them. From lost or truant children to landlord-tenant disputes; from family disputes to emotionally disturbed individuals needing assistance in a moment of crisis; from victims of home burglaries to a child assaulted on his or her way back home, police officers are called as an agency of last resort.

Officers respond to an array of needs from the community. Whether they are new officers on the beat or veteran officers, police officers often work alone or side by side with another officer; however, at times, we must acknowledge that the partner they truly need does not actually need to wear a police uniform. Frequently, a different set of skills and training are what is called for – and that is where co-responder models can assist.

In New Haven, Connecticut and Providence, Rhode Island, this realization has been acted upon. And not just with a new number to call for requesting assistance or making referrals, but rather a joint response with a social worker or a mental health clinician working side by side in a police car and responding as a team to calls for service.

Much of the work does not end with the taking of a police report or the arrest of an offender, but also must extend to the victim and quite possibly, their families. The continuum of care is launched at the moment of crisis and not as a follow-up to a referral from some weeks later. To do this, both law enforcement agencies must continue to train police officers on mental healthcare and child development needs, and clinicians must undergo a similar orientation on law enforcement and policing before being ready to work together as co-responders.

With this partnership at hand, we can truly begin to more fully protect and serve our communities – cops and social workers can be natural partners in serving communities.

NEXT: IACP Quick Take: Social work and law enforcement: A crucial collaboration


About the author

Dean M. Esserman is a former chief of the New Haven (Connecticut) Police Department. Prior to that, he served as chief of police in Providence, Rhode Island; Stamford, Connecticut; and the New York State MTA-Metro North Police Department. Prior to that, he served as general counsel to Chief William Bratton of the New York City Transit Police. He started his career as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York, and as a special assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York. 

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