Joining Forces: 3 Opportunities for Better Law Enforcement-Human Services Collaboration

Michael De Cicco
July 9, 2019

When it comes to serving communities and responding to individuals in crisis, law enforcement agencies and human service systems each play a role in maintaining the safety and stability of their communities. Substance use, child welfare, intimate partner violence, suicide, juvenile justice, mass violence — these are not only some of the most prominent societal challenges we face today, but also circumstances where both police officers and human service professionals are on the front lines. 

The roles of law enforcement and human service agencies therefore consistently overlap. In communities and environments where needs are intensified and resources limited, this overlap comes into sharper focus. When behavioral healthcare is inaccessible, or social service systems are overburdened, communities often turn to law enforcement to fill in the gaps — sometimes leading to serious negative outcomes that can inflict trauma, injury, or death:

Such incidents are not only harmful to the individuals involved, but can also irrevocably damage a community’s trust in its police force and social support systems. These trends are a clear indicator that communication and partnerships between law enforcement agencies and human service providers need to be examined and strengthened. 

Collaborative approaches to crisis intervention

The relationship between behavioral health and policing cannot be overstated; according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, individuals in mental health crisis are far more likely to be confronted by police than to receive medical attention. More than 90% of patrol officers encounter individuals in crisis, with an average of 6 encounters per officer per month, but officers are often unprepared to meet the unique challenges of de-escalating a person with a disability or mental illness in crisis. A traditional law enforcement approach — “command and control,” — designed for crime intervention is likely to elicit fear and disorientation in individuals with disabilities or who are in emotional distress. Such approaches  pose a significant risk of triggering a trauma response and escalating the dangerous behavior, increasing the likelihood for excessive force to be deployed.

In response to these challenges, law enforcement agencies have increasingly recognized the value of diversifying capacity and expanding officers’ skill sets in order to increase safety and efficacy in crisis response. In addition to ramping up efforts to educate officers on trauma, mental illness, and disability, and expanding training on de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques, many departments are adopting innovative new models to partner with behavioral health and human service professionals in police work. 

Crisis Intervention Teams are one popular model in use in 2,700 communities across the country. The core components include recruiting, selecting, and training officers to serve as designated responders to mental health crises, and establishing relationships with a designated mental health receiving facility and other resources in the community to facilitate immediate emergency entry into the mental health system and reduce barriers to care. Officers receive 40 hours of intensive training on common disorders, developmental disability, and crisis de-escalation skills. Key to the success of this model are: ensuring adequate staffing to maintain continuous CIT coverage, equipping emergency dispatchers with the skills needed to identify when a CIT response is appropriate, and designing and delivering training curricula with the collective input of law enforcement, behavioral health specialists, and advocates. Evaluation of the CIT model indicates that it yields positive results, reducing officer injuries as well as the need for more intensive and costly law enforcement responses as well as increased referrals to emergency health care and accessibility of mental health services.  

Co-responder programs are another partnership strategy with growing interest. Los Angeles, Omaha, Mesa, Arizona, and Huntington, West Virginia are among the jurisdictions that are adopting or expanding programs in 2019 to embed therapists, social workers, or addiction counselors into police departments. There is no standardized model, and program scope varies widely from place to place: some departments hire behavioral health specialists directly while others coordinate part-time or rotating coverage from a local provider; some target suicide and others substance use; they may be first on the scene or “secondary responders”; responsibilities can range from emergency response, community patrol, or even follow-up and case management. Although the programs are incredibly diverse, the rapid rate of adoption points to a culture shift in law enforcement: an emerging understanding of the agency’s role in responding to complex issues facing their communities, willingness and recognition of the value of working closely with human service professionals, and an investment towards diverting individuals in crisis away from the criminal justice system. 

One Mind Campaign Pledge

Establishing boundaries

Responding to individuals in crisis in the community is not the only circumstance where law enforcement and human services intersect. Although the integration of social workers and therapists into the world of community policing is a growing trend, for many human service providers — especially resource-starved ones — engaging police departments for assistance is standard operating procedure that may come with unintended consequences. 

In a May 2019 lawsuit filed against the Administration for Children’s Services, the New York state appellate court ruled that family courts do not have the authority to issue warrants for foster youth who have run away from their placements — a longstanding practice. In 2017, the child welfare agency was granted 69 arrest warrants for children in their care; that was after guidelines for seeking warrants were tightened in 2015, when the number of arrest warrants issued was up to 125. In a majority of these cases, police officers deployed to retrieve missing youth end up putting them in handcuffs and in jail cells, regardless of safety risk. 

Runaway behavior in foster care can often be attributed to trauma — children leave their foster care placements to be with the family members from whom they’ve been separated or other loved ones, or due to conflict with their foster parents. Being apprehended and even restrained by police officers and forcibly returned to settings where they may not feel safe exponentially compounds that trauma. The already fragile (or absent) trust in the child welfare agency may be eroded, often irrevocably, and the agency’s motivation may be perceived as punitive vs. protective.

In congregate care, the intensive needs and challenging behaviors of residents can often overwhelm the capacity of personnel and for many residential facilities, a common response to harmful or disruptive behavior, or unauthorized leave, is to summon police officers. In some communities, police departments report responding to struggling facilities multiple times a day. As with crises that take place in the community, the consequences of calling the police can be significant if the appropriate skills and protocols are not in place. And for organizations, chronic reliance on police intervention poses additional risks: therapeutic setbacks to service recipients involved, damaged staff morale, and diminished perception in the eyes of the host community and collaborating providers.  

In 2015, California passed legislation aimed at reducing the frequency of law enforcement intervention in group homes and other residential facilities for children and youth. But policy or regulation is unlikely to be effective if the underlying causes are sidestepped. Experts argue that frequent calls to law enforcement are an indicator of deeper issues: inadequate staffing, insufficient training, ineffective programming, or a need to reassess admission/screening criteria. The continuum of challenges endemic to social services — underfunding, understaffing, burnout, turnover — hamper providers’ ability to meet the needs of their service population and maintain a safe and stable therapeutic environment. 

If police intervention is unavoidable, then effective collaboration and proper training is critical. Providers and police departments must ensure that responding officers are familiar with the characteristics and needs of the service population and learn the skills necessary to safely de-escalate, retrieve, restrain a service recipient utilizing the least restrictive response to maintain safety. Recommendations from advocates include: 

  • Jointly evaluating policies and protocols to emergency response 
  • Creating Memoranda of Understanding between police departments and providers to better define roles and expectations around interventions, and ensure that responding officers are given relevant details about the residents in crisis
  • Better data collection and analysis on the frequency and nature of law enforcement intervention in treatment settings

Children’s Village, a COA-accredited provider in New York, has called upon city leaders to form a Runaway Youth Taskforce to bring together law enforcement and social services in developing a new model for preventing and responding to runaway youth. 

Meeting the mental health needs of police officers

A recent cluster of officer deaths by suicide has shed a harsh light on the challenges of addressing the mental health needs of the law enforcement community. Officers are at increased risk of PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicide due to constant threat of violence or actual violence and exposure to death and trauma, in addition to chronic work stressors such as sleep deprivation and fatigue. Although repeatedly acknowledged by law enforcement agencies and police union leadership, the mental wellness needs of police officers are still persistently unaddressed. The culture of law enforcement has often been cited as a major barrier to care, with officers reporting fear of perception of weakness, alienation from fellow officers, and other potential professional repercussions as a result of seeking out needed services and supports. 

Ignoring the mental health of police officers puts communities at risk. Studies have linked PTSD with impaired decision making ability — a critical implication for police officers in potentially life-threatening situations, and the potential for excessive or deadly force. These incidents not only increase the risk of injury or fatality of those involved, but also negatively impact the relationship between the community and law enforcement. 

The human services field may be uniquely positioned to make a positive impact in this area. Professional staff in the social services and behavioral health field share many of the same work stressors as police officers — excessive caseloads, exposure to traumatic events, vulnerability in the community or service environment — and the impact of secondary or vicarious trauma has become a prominent area of research and advocacy in the human services field. Providers can bring significant knowledge to the table for law enforcement agencies about identifying and mitigating the effects of PTSD and secondary trauma, appropriate resources for treatment and support, and strategies for bolstering officers’ resilience. 

Increasing the presence of behavioral health professionals in law enforcement settings can provide multiple benefits — not only by distributing or diverting the “social work” attributes of community policing, but also by providing an avenue for officers to seek support and referral to available services. Law enforcement leaders might also consider whether services provided outside of the auspices of the law enforcement agency might be more accessible to officers, potentially reinforcing confidentiality of services and softening the impact of stigma. Service providers can also assess opportunities to expand or tailor their service array in a way that focuses on the unmet needs of this population or supports their families. Research suggests that cultural competency — awareness of and responsiveness to the cultural and professional idiosyncrasies of police work — is pivotal to the accessibility and efficacy of psychological interventions targeted at police officers, and may be enhanced through peer-driven program design. 

To protect and serve — and partner

Communities today are recognizing that the most pervasive social and public health challenges they are confronted with cannot be overcome without constructive collaboration between the social service, behavioral health, and criminal justice systems. Successful collaboration hinges, however, on meaningful assessment of areas of strength and need, clearly delineated roles and responsibilities, and a shared commitment to invest in the most effective solutions. Many agencies are developing or pursuing creative strategies to build partnerships between providers and police officers, with the understanding that joining forces is imperative to forming a greater understanding and capacity to meet the needs of their shared community, strengthening public trust and improving outcomes across all systems. 

We’d love to hear from any organizations with experience in human services – law enforcement collaboration. Please share any promising practices or lessons learned in the comments below. 

Learn more or get involved

About Michael De Cicco

Michael De Cicco is the Vice President of External Relations & Communications at the Council on Accreditation, where he oversees the Business Development, Marketing, Communications, Recognitions and Partnerships, Training and Quality Improvement, and Business Intelligence groups. A true global citizen, he speaks seven languages and is an avid traveler in his spare time.