Co-response pilot in Ypsi Township pairs sheriff's deputy and social worker for mental health calls

The new program makes it easier for both law enforcement and community mental health to provide an appropriate response to a high volume of mental health-related calls.
This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

Washtenaw County Sheriff's Deputy James Roy estimates that about 80% or more of the calls he responds to are related to some kind of mental health issue. That's one reason the county has launched a co-response pilot program in Ypsilanti Township that pairs Deputy Roy with Christine Holston, a social worker with the county's Community Mental Health (CMH) program. 

A sheriff's deputy or other law enforcement official has always had the option to call in a social worker through the "coordinated response" program. However, with that model, there's a delay between the call and the arrival, which is not ideal when the person interacting with law enforcement is in a crisis. With the co-response model, a deputy and a social worker ride the night shift together, responding to dispatch calls or checking in on local homeless encampments or other community members.

Melisa Tasker is the program coordinator for the county's CARES team, which provides short-term mental health stabilization services. She says CMH and local law enforcement have been using a coordinated response to good effect for about 10 years.

"But we're meeting them out there, and sometimes it takes 30 minutes or more to get out there," Tasker says. "We felt like moving in this direction of having a crisis team staff member already present with the officer would add a lot more value when we do need to involve law enforcement in a mental health crisis."
Washtenaw County Community Mental Health Executive Director Trish Cortes.
CMH Executive Director Trish Cortes says it was important to her that the co-response partnership happen specifically with the sheriff's office for several reasons. The first is that CMH serves all of Washtenaw County, so it makes sense to partner with another county-wide entity.

The second is that the two organizations already have a positive, ongoing partnership. Cortes says she feels confident in the mental health crisis training that sheriff's deputies have received.

"Sheriff [Jerry] Clayton is working on a culture that does this type of work and has done it well for years," Cortes says. "Our crisis response unit knows we are working with a law enforcement agency that has prioritized mental health and how to respond to a mental health crisis. When we are working with a sheriff's deputy, we know we will have a good outcome."

Meet the co-response team

Roy was chosen for the co-response pilot because he has a reputation for doing "community policing," a practice focused on developing relationships with residents.

"I never thought of it as community policing. I just thought I was doing good police work, getting out of the car, talking to people in the community, doing foot patrols," Roy says. He's also done patrols by bicycle and says that makes it easier to connect with people and learn about their concerns.
Washtenaw County Sheriff's Deputy James Roy.
Holston has been working on the CMH crisis team for almost 10 years. A few years ago she became a mental health clinician on the sheriff's hostage negotiator team. That made her a natural fit for the co-response pairing.

She says the best part of the co-response program is that she connects with people who might need CMH's services but would never reach out for them directly. 

"There are some things the 911 operator might miss and the police would deal with them, and not call us in until after the fact," Holston says. "Now, we can find people ourselves who need help. We could connect substance abuse clients to a facility, get on the phone with them, and get them an appointment."

Deputy Roy calls that kind of extended interaction with a community member a "warm hand-off" to needed services.

He says other deputies love the co-response unit because it frees them up from mental health calls that can eat up large chunks of their day. In contrast, Roy says, "I can spend as long as I need."
Community Mental Health social worker Christine Holston.
"If I have to spend three hours helping someone in crisis, I can," Roy says. "If I can get your trust, I'll drive you there, we'll chat the whole way, and I'll go in with you. I can explain to the doctor what's going on and get you admitted. You're not alone, and it's not as scary."

Cortes is confident in the pairing.

"We were able to select a clinician from my team that already does this work well and is comfortable with it. And we have a deputy we know is already really good at de-escalation and working with someone in a mental health crisis," Cortes says. "That takes some of the randomness out of it on the CMH side. To an extent, that will guarantee the outcome will be a positive, safe response that meets the needs of citizens."

Beyond the pilot program

The pilot program kicked off in Ypsilanti Township over the summer. Sheriff Jerry Clayton says Ypsilanti Township officials were willing to extend the pilot for another three months after the initial three-month trial, and then keep extending it if it continues to prove useful.

CMH and the sheriff's office have contracted with the University of Chicago's Urban Labs Health Lab to evaluate the pilot program and provide guidance for changes or expansions.
Christine Holston and Deputy James Roy on the night shift along Washtenaw Avenue.
"That's given us a lot of value, because we're learning as we do this," Clayton says.

Next, Clayton says he'd like to get additional training for dispatchers to make it easier for them to identify calls that should go to the co-response team. 

"We've been looking nationally, and are still looking, for a training model for dispatchers," Clayton says. "We think maybe it doesn't exist and we will probably end up designing our own."

Clayton and Cortes both say they'd like to see this program extended across all of Washtenaw County.

"We're already seeing so much success that, at the first of the year, we're planning to add another co-response unit, still in the pilot area of Ypsilanti Township," Cortes says. "I'm hoping, though, we can have a county-wide conversation with all municipalities and law enforcement agencies about how we can make this a county-wide model." 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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