Cleveland works to expand program which pairs police officers with social workers to respond to mental health crisis calls Credit: Jeff Haynes

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Cleveland City Council voted last week to expand the city’s police co-response program, which would double the amount of teams going out to mental health crisis calls. 

The existing co-response pilot program, which launched in January 2020, includes five teams made up of one police officer specially trained in crisis intervention and a mental health case worker. They respond to or follow up on emergency mental health crisis calls. 

Community leaders are also pushing for the city to add another mental health crisis response program – one that wouldn’t involve police at all. 

What is co-response?

The co-response model is increasingly being used to address mental health calls in police departments across the country. 

In Cleveland co-response teams, made up of a police officer and a caseworker, work from noon to 10 p.m. four days a week. The teams ride in the same vehicle and respond to or follow-up on mental health crisis calls. 

When a person calls 911 – often a third party calling about a relative or friend experiencing a mental health crisis – dispatchers ask a series of questions to determine whether a crisis intervention team (CIT) officer should respond to the call, said Carole Ballard, director of education and training with the ADAMHS Board.

Once a dispatcher determines a person is not violent and does not have access to weapons, they send a specially trained CIT officer or a co-response team if one is available. 

People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crime, not perpetrators. 

Officers and case workers usually wear bullet-proof vests when responding to or following up on a call. The officer makes sure the scene is safe before the case worker joins to help the person in crisis. 

What is co-response? Co-response is a program where a police officer is teamed up with a mental health expert to respond to or follow up on 911 calls that involve a mental health crisis. 

What is care response? Care response is a program where a mental health expert and often a paramedic respond to emergency mental health crisis calls. This program does not involve police at all.

If a co-response team is not available, ideally an officer with 40 hours of crisis intervention training is going out on the call, Ballard said. 

The Cleveland Police Department has just short of 100 officers with that training of about 1,300 officers on the force. 

Between Oct. 1, 2021 and Sept. 30, 2022, co-response teams responded to more than 1,700 calls, the majority of which were follow-ups. 

Ten percent of the time, co-response teams were the first to arrive on scene, according to a recent report reviewing the co-responder program.  

Anya Nazarenko with Case Western Reserve University presented the findings this week in a Mental Health Response Advisory Committee meeting

Most people who received service from Cleveland’s co-response teams were either reconnected with their mental health or substance use disorder expert or were admitted to an inpatient hospital.  

Council members on Nov. 7 approved an ordinance allocating more than $5 million to continue the co-response pilot program and double its size to 10 teams, adding a second team to each police district. The funding, which will come from the American Rescue Plan Act, is estimated to last five years and includes the salary for a mental health dispatcher who will help with mental health crisis calls. 

The Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County
The Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services of Cuyahoga County Credit: Jeff Haynes

The city plans to hire a strategist who will be tasked with finding sustainable funding for the city to continue the co-response program. The program so far has been maintained by grants, meaning funding has been limited leaving city officials to look for new funding sources as grants expire. 

The strategist position will also help the city explore other alternative response models. 

“There is no one response model that would dominate at all,” Ballard said. “Because you will need CIT officers, you will need a co-response, and you may need alternative response models.” 

Cities across the country have started to add non-police response teams to address mental health crisis 911 calls. 

I think care response being a brand new idea, we are obligated to ask the community what they need before we tell them what they’re gonna get.

Elaine Schleiffer, co-founder of REACH

Cincinnati launched a non-police response program in July, where a behavioral health specialist and a firefighter or paramedic “conduct welfare checks, assist with basic needs, and refer or connect individuals with community service providers,” according to the program’s website

Community groups in Cleveland are looking to Cincinnati’s program and others as they work toward a formal proposal of a non-police response program. 

What residents said they need

Over the summer, Policy Matters and REACH worked with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to produce a report titled, “Talk to Me Like a Regular Person, Not a Criminal.” The coalition’s Homeless Congress, which is made up of people who have experienced homelessness, surveyed 177 community members who are most likely to need a care response program. Most of the participants were people of color.

The survey is the first phase of a larger survey REACH is conducting to better understand what a care response program should look like, Elaine Schleiffer, co-founder of REACH, said.

“I think care response being a brand new idea, we are obligated to ask the community what they need before we tell them what they’re gonna get,” Schleiffer said. 

Almost half of those surveyed said their interactions with first responders in the past year have been mostly positive and 30% said their interactions were negative, the report shows.

Participants were asked what services they would like a non-police care response team to be able to provide. About 50% of participants said they want medical care. Other responses included food, water, transportation, blankets, hygiene and first aid supplies as well as narcan, naloxone and test strips for drugs. 

Asked what makes them feel safe, one respondent said, “talk to me like a regular person, not a criminal.” 

Other responses to more open ended questions varied from topics of homelessness and not having a place to sleep, to physical and mental health. 

“My biggest takeaway was that there’s no silver bullet for this,” Schleiffer said. “We got an incredibly broad range of responses to every single question that we asked.”

Schleiffer was excited to see additional funding for co-response, and said she would like to eventually see Cleveland offer a trio of response options that include officers trained in crisis intervention, co-response teams and care response teams.

“This isn’t just, you know, take one thing and replace it with something else,” Schleiffer said. “This is truly continuing to build a full toolbox because every single crisis is different.” 

If you or anyone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988 to reach a crisis care specialist. 

Criminal Justice Reporter (she/her)
Stephanie, who covered criminal justice and breaking news at the Chicago Tribune, is a bilingual journalist with a passion for storytelling that is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the communities she covers. She has been a reporter and copy editor for local newspapers in South Dakota, Kansas and Arizona. Stephanie is also a Maynard 200 alumni, a Maynard Institute for Journalism Education training program for journalists of color that focuses on making newsrooms more equitable, diverse and anti-racist.