New Dauphin County program provides mental health co-responders to help police divert individuals away from prison and into treatment

HARRISBURG, PA (June 30, 2020) – Through its Criminal Justice Advisory Board (CJAB), Dauphin County has developed a co-responder team model for law enforcement to help officers respond to calls involving individuals with a mental health and/or substance use disorder. The co-responder team model is one of the recommendations in Dauphin County’s Stepping-Up initiative, the goal of which is to reduce the number of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system.

“Every day, police officers are on the front lines and responding to calls that often involve drug use or a mental health issue,” said Dauphin County Commissioner George P. Hartwick, III. “One of the most significant injustices our country faces is the continued jailing of the mentally ill, who end up trapped in an endless cycle of recidivistic behavior. The problem of mental illness is not new, but the ways we treat it continue to evolve, and hopefully, improve.”

The state Department of Human Services awarded a total of $180,548 for fiscal year 2019 through 2021 for two co-responder positions under the supervision of Dr. Ashley Yinger of the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office. Dauphin County Violent Crimes Task Force funds helped to cover the cost of protective equipment.

Currently, four local police departments are participating in the program: Harrisburg City and Lower Paxton, Swatara and Susquehanna townships. The police departments were determined based on call volume to EMS for assistance with mental health-related concerns. Harrisburg has a designated co-responder who started in April of 2020. Lower Paxton, Swatara and Susquehanna have a co-responder who began in mid-May to assist as needed.

Working side by side with law enforcement, the co-responders assist with calls where behavioral health might be the underlying factor for individuals at risk of arrest.  The co-responders can be dispatched along with law enforcement officers on these calls or follow up with individuals to provide an assessment or referral for services if arrest did not occur.  

“The goal is to reduce the number of people with mental illness in prison without compromising public safety,” said Dauphin County Board Chairman Jeff Haste. “Having the judges, district attorney, law enforcement and human services leaders at the table shows our level of commitment to the cause.”

Data collected between April 6 and June 18 shows that out of 111 incidents where police and co-responders were called, only 11 resulted in formal charges.

“Talk to any police officer about the top challenges that they face and the high number of people with serious mental illnesses cycling through the criminal justice system will be at the top of their list,” said Commissioner Mike Pries, who chairs the county’s Prison Board of Inspectors. “Dauphin County’s CJAB and police chiefs deserve a lot of credit for embracing the concepts of smart justice and finding solutions to improve public safety and outcomes for individuals with mental health diagnoses.”

As part of the Stepping Up initiative, Dauphin County has provided extensive training on de-escalation techniques, mental health and cultural awareness to co-responders, local police officers and corrections staff. The 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, has trained a total of 60 individuals to date, including 34 police and 9 probation officers, 9 correctional officers, and 8 diversion/treatment specialists and problem-solving courts. The next CIT in August will train 20 more professionals in the criminal justice field.  

“The police who have gone through CIT have recognized the value of it, so we really think it’s making a great difference,” said Chardo. “The need is so great that we’re looking to expand the program and add a third responder.”

“EMS has a list of all those trained so that when a call comes in involving a behavioral health crisis, a request can be made for a CIT officer to respond,” said Dr. Yinger, who also conducts CIT for the county. “From the three trainings thus far, we have seen positive outcomes from what the officers have learned throughout the week.”