When law enforcement personnel respond to a call, every word that comes through the scanner offers insight into what they are about to encounter.
Oftentimes, those words allude to an underlying issue, like mental health problems, that can offer context to the actions that are taking place.
“You don’t know what that person’s intentions are and whether they’re interested in harming just themselves or somebody else,” said Kathy Evans, a co-responder with the Mental Health Center of Denver who responds to calls with officers from the Denver Police Department. “We try and focus on calls that may have a mental health component that don’t seem to have that mental health component right away.”
Evans has worked in conjunction with the Denver Police Department since 2018, responding to as many as five calls a day 3 or 4 times a week.
“7.4% of our calls for service have some sort of mental health nexus,” said Paul Pazen, police chief for the Denver Police Department.
When Pazen was appointed police chief, the year Evans joined as a co-responder, there were less than 10 co-responders on board. Now, there are 25, with seven more to onboard in the coming months.
“Often, folks will come in and they’re a little bit cautious about what this is,” said Pazen. “From my perspective, from my experience, from what we are doing, this is not 'defund the police' in any way. This is all about better outcomes.”
In June, New York launched its B-HEARD program, which is modeled after Denver’s program. During the first month of service, NYPD reported that 95% of people accepted care from B-HEARD teams compared to 82% from traditional law enforcement, and only 50% of people were transported to the hospital, compared 82% with a traditional 911 response.
Cities in Minnesota, Oregon, California, Georgia, and Montana have all started similar programs, and in Denver, the police department is taking it a step further by hiring outreach specialists, as they call them, to follow up to calls and help those who need it.
“We’ve helped young people get jobs. We’ve helped connect veterans to VA clinics. We’ve helped connect people to housing because that’s what the issue was,” said Pazen.
“[The people we help] can be really escalated and just having someone who’s deescalated and can ground them can make a big difference,” said Evans.