Police use of mental health co-responders expected to hit all-time high in JoCo this year

Johnson County Mental Health Center

Johnson County Mental Health Center's co-responder program is in it's 11th year, and by the end of 2022, the program is going to nearly double in size, Director Tim DeWeese said. Co-responders are licensed professionals embedded in police departments who accompany law enforcement on crisis calls that have a potential mental health impacts.

Johnson County’s co-responder program is in its 11th year — and it continues to grow.

Why it matters: Co-responders are mental health professionals who accompany police officers on 911 calls. By the end of 2022, Johnson County will practically double its number of co-responders, said Tim DeWeese, director of Johnson County Mental Health Center.

The impact: Merriam Police Chief Darren McLaughlin said at the Feb. 28 city council meeting that the co-responder program is one of the most impactful things to happen in his 33-year career.

“Unfortunately, right now, outside of the co-responders being embedded with us, we’re it,” McLaughlin said. “Law enforcement is the primary, first contact with most mental health crisis issues.”

McLaughlin said one of the biggest areas co-responders help with is working with domestic violence survivors. Co-responders can help them sort through the violence of the attack, work through court-related issues and walk them through separation from their abusers.

DeWeese said co-responders divert arrests and emergency room visits for 12 police jurisdictions and 16 Johnson County cities. He said he sees the program as a way “to meet the needs of the community in the most efficient, effective way possible.”

By the numbers: DeWeese said co-responders accompanied law enforcement on 1,022 911 calls in 2019. That number grew to 1,626 in 2020 and grew again to 2,260 in 2021.

But co-responders don’t just ride along or meet officers on the scene of 911 calls. DeWeese said co-responders also follow-up with Johnson Countians who they meet through the 911 calls or people police officers ask them to check on.

DeWeese said co-responders conducted 2,843 follow-ups in 2019. That number more than doubled in 2020 to 6,101 follow-ups, he said.

Due to the pandemic, DeWeese said, the number of follow-ups did drop to 4,808 in 2021. DeWeese said if it weren’t for the pandemic preventing co-responders from going inside homes, he thinks the number of follow-ups would have been even higher.

Current growth and beyond: This year, each city — or groups of cities in the case of northeast Johnson County — will have at least two co-responders. Prairie Village and Leawood, which share a single co-responder, are the only exceptions to this.

Overland Park is adding three more co-responders this year, for a total of six. Olathe is adding one-and-a-half for a total of three-and-a-half co-responders. An additional co-responder for northeast Johnson County cities like Merriam and Mission brings the group’s total to two co-responders, as well as an additional co-responder for the Sheriff’s jurisdiction.

A map of current co-responders and their jurisdictions can be found online here.

DeWeese said co-responders will also be embedded at 911 call centers so when Johnson Countians dial 988 — the new three-digit code for the suicide prevention hotline — all mental health crisis calls can be addressed from a central location.

While the demand for co-responders may grow in individual cities, DeWeese said, it’s also possible that clinical co-responders will be embedded in schools. This way, he said, co-responders can accompany school resource officers to address mental health crises that occur on school grounds.

Key quote: “The last two years have been really hard for everyone, and people are reaching out more than ever for assistance,” DeWeese said, referencing not only the pandemic, but national polarization and other community issues.