The Arvada Police Department is calling in a special kind of backup.

The department is hiring two new clinicians and purchasing two new vehicles for its co-responder program, which helps bring behavioral health professionals along to some calls alongside law enforcement.

The Arvada program became fully operational in 2016 as one of the earliest co-responder programs receiving funding through the Colorado Department of Human Service’s Office of Behavioral Health (OBH). The office currently supports 26 such implementations of the program across the state, serving 23 counties and 57 communities.

The Jefferson Center for Mental Health partnered with the Arvada Police Department (APD) to secure initial funding, employing two behavioral health professionals to join officers on calls. APD applied for the additional funding in April, and is now working with the Jefferson Center to hire two more clinicians, for a total of four in the program.

The statewide program is aimed at supporting “communities that want to take a different approach to calls with a suspected behavioral health component,” says a June 2020 evaluation of the program, conducted by the Colorado Health Institute and sponsored by OBH.

Departments have some leeway in how they structure their own program. In Arvada, mental health clinicians respond to behavioral health-related calls with officers to help provide immediate resolutions; assist officers with developing resources for response and follow-up; and follow up on officer, fire department and citizen referrals, said Arvada commander Melanie Thornton.

The extra resources provided by the most recently received funding will multiply “the coverage across the week and the co-responders’ ability to respond to more calls for service throughout the city,” Thornton said.

The APD gave a rough estimate that each year, it responds to anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 calls with a suspected behavioral health component.

The APD’s goal through the program is to provide the right services to those who may otherwise not receive them, reduce the time first responders spend on each call and “reduce the cycle of crisis for individuals who would otherwise rely on the 911 system for emergency assistance,” she said.

So far, Thornton said the APD has seen progress made toward all of these goals — and departments across Colorado are seeing similar results.

According to the CHI report, which surveyed law enforcement officers and behavioral health professionals about eight of the programs in place so far, departments with a co-responder program feel the program has improved community-law enforcement relations.

Out of those surveyed, 86% of law enforcement officers and 82% of behavioral health professionals reported improved interactions between community members and law enforcement, the report said.

Additionally, respondents were surveyed about the program’s overall goal to increase the number of instances in which a situation is de-escalated before an individual takes an action that would result in arrest or transportation to an emergency department.

All in all, 46.5% of respondents said through the program, they always or often diverted calls from arrest; 53.6% said they always or often diverted calls from emergency department transportations and 39.2%, from mental health holds.

“We’ve seen a lot of nice evidence related to our outcomes,” said Camille Harding, OBH’s division director for community behavioral health. “Law enforcement really appreciates the program, as well as individuals that are being encountered.”