JoCo co-responder improving ability to respond to mental health issues, say Prairie Village police

Heather Mason started as the co-responder working with the Prairie Village Police Department in July 2019. Submitted photo.

As local law enforcement agencies have seen the number of mental-health related calls to 911 climb in recent years, the county and Shawnee Mission area cities have partnered to provide trained mental-health professionals to assist police on the scene.

The main goal of Johnson County Mental Health Center’s co-responder program is to “provide the right intervention at the right time by the right person.”

The co-responders, all licensed clinicians, provide immediate assistance during and following emergency calls, such as connecting individuals with appropriate resources and reducing unnecessary arrests or emergency room visits. Last month, the Prairie Village city council got a presentation from co-responder Heather Mason, who has been based out of the Prairie Village Police Department for the past six months.

“It’s such a valuable service and skillset to the health and safety of our community,” Mayor Eric Mikkelson said. “We’re really glad [Heather Mason is] here. We look forward to supporting [Mason] and what [she’s] doing.”

In addition to her duties with Prairie Village, Mason is also the co-responder for Leawood and Mission Hills. Mason said she assesses the next level of care an individual needs after an emergency call, which can be a simple follow-up or providing the individual with resources. Below are a few responsibilities co-responders are charged with, according to a fact sheet from the county:

  • Collect data from interactions
  • Help the sheriff’s office with evictions
  • Assist officers in the field via the police radio
  • Review police reports to alert JCMHC of contact with law enforcement

Mason said being based in the police department has its pros and cons, but overall, it allows her to see the officers’ perspectives. She said she feels the officers utilize her services more than they would if she were based in the mental health center. For instance, officers will approach her with minor situations they may not have otherwise gone to the JCMHC about, she said.

Prairie Village Chief of Police Tim Schwartzkopf said the department “is fortunate to have such a talented mental health professional working alongside” officers.

“Heather has been a great addition to our team here at [the Prairie Village Police Department],” Schwartzkopf wrote. “She is providing a valuable resource to our community for getting people in crisis the appropriate treatment at the right time.”

Mason also works with the students from schools in her three cities when she receives a call from a school resource officer, she said. The co-responder program employs 11 mental health professionals across 15 cities in the county, as well as a school co-responder for the Gardner-Edgerton School District.

The program exemplifies the proactive approach Johnson County is taking to address mental health issues, Mason said. More than that, the “unique” and “progressive” program shows the community that the county and the police department care, she said.

“I think this shows that the police really are caring and trying to be the best service possible,” Mason said. “For me, I think that’s something that’s really important to realize, is that we are here to help.”