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Kathy Evans ’14 is among a growing number of mental health professionals who patrol with police officers to assist citizens in crisis and help de-escalate police encounters.
By Amy Martin
few days into her new job, Kathy Evans ’14 encountered a person trying to jump off a balcony.
Some days, Evans might end up at the scene of a drug overdose or a burglary. She was recently involved in a car chase through the streets of Denver.
“My knuckles were white; I was definitely practicing my deep breathing,” Evans said.
Evans isn’t a detective, an investigator or a patrol officer. She is a licensed clinical social worker who rides along with police officers to assist people in need, de-escalate encounters between the general public and the police, and divert citizens into treatment rather than the criminal justice system.
At a time when many communities across the country are looking to reimagine public safety, the co-responder model is gaining popularity. And for good reason: It’s a straightforward way to mitigate the overreliance on police to respond to matters that aren’t criminal in nature.
“In Denver, 41 percent of the emergency calls are mental health related and have nothing to do with crime. These are people who just need resources,” Evans said.
Ronald Davis served as a police officer for 30 years and as the director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services under the Obama administration. During a virtual event in January, he spoke about the dangers of relying solely on police to address social issues, in “Continuing the Conversation on Race: Policing in the U.S. and New London,” hosted by Connecticut College and The Day newspaper.
“Over the past 20 to 30 years, we have deconstructed most of the social services capacity in our communities, whether it’s mental health services, drug addiction services, reentry services—and that one 24-hour entity, the police, is the only one left to respond. … It criminalizes activities that should not be criminalized,” he said.
“Homelessness is not a crime. Addiction is not a crime. Mental illness is not a crime. [Police officers] need to get out of that business.”
That’s where Evans and her fellow clinicians come in.
“I work with fantastic officers who have the community’s best interest in mind and want to help people, but they don’t always have the training I have,” she said. “They aren’t prepared to deal with certain mental health issues, and they don’t have the resources. That’s why it’s so great we have this partnership—we can collaborate. We can support each other.”
Evans’ day starts at 6 a.m. with roll call. Clinicians and officers discuss any large public events planned for the day and follow up on previous activity or other pertinent issues. Then, Evans puts on her bulletproof vest and hops into a police car.
“The calls can be so unpredictable, and even when they don’t initially seem to be related to mental health, they often are,” Evans says.
She uses a car accident as an example—a two-car accident on a busy road doesn’t sound like something that would require a social worker, but once on scene, Evans might realize that the person driving erratically was doing so because they were experiencing mental distress.
“I’ve been on calls where I’ve been able to say, ‘Hey, this is impacting your ability to drive safely, and we should really talk about that. I could help you find resources and get connected to mental health services.’ The person ends up really benefiting.”
Some calls are clearly mental health related, such as a person considering suicide or someone with schizophrenia acting aggressively toward a family member. In those cases, after her partner officer has made sure the scene is safe, Evans often takes the lead. Other calls are related to addiction—fentanyl overdose is especially common in the Denver area—or homelessness. In some instances, Evans aids distraught family members, witnesses or victims.
“I go on a lot of calls where family members have found loved ones who have passed away. The officers have their job they need to do, but when I’m on scene, I can provide support for people who may have found the body, for example.”
After providing on-scene assistance, Evans connects the people she encounters—called clients—with a network of resources and services through the Mental Health Center of Denver. She collaborates with case managers, hospital staff and service providers to make sure people get the follow-up care they need.
“This really is my dream job. I love that every day is different, and that I’m challenged to use all the skills I have as a social worker. It keeps me on my toes every single day, and even after almost three years, I’m still surprised by the things I encounter at work,” she said.
Snow says the partnership between officers and clinicians is a key component of the program’s success. And while some communities have clinicians ride separately or respond after the fact, Snow sees clear benefits to the ride-along model in his city.
“We find it more effective to pair them, so they are truly responding simultaneously. They can both assess the situation on the way to the scene and discuss who is going to take the lead and under what circumstances the lead may need to change,” he said, adding that officer-clinician pairs rotate so that every officer has a chance to participate.
“There’s a clear pathway from initial call to assessment to support services,” Snow says. “We are taking people who otherwise might have ended up in the criminal justice system and really changing outcomes for people.”
Denver’s co-responser program has attracted attention from police departments and communities around the country, and similar initiatives are expanding in Connecticut, including in New London. The city and the New London Police Department are looking to expand on an existing ride-along partnership with the state’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services by hiring “peer navigators” to provide follow-up services. The peer navigator program was a recommendation of an NLPD task force appointed by New London Mayor Michael Passero ’79 in 2020.
Connecticut College has also been working with Evans to develop its own co-responder program, believed to be one of the first in the country on a college campus.
“Last summer, students were engaged in conversations about general issues of policing, given what was happening in our country with the [Black Lives Matter movement and protests surrounding the death of George Floyd], and we began thinking about how, on our campus, Campus Safety is the first response, and is there another way to think about that,” said Senior Associate Dean of Student Life Sarah Cardwell.
Student Life staff are currently interviewing candidates to serve as student support specialists, who would co-respond with Campus Safety officers to students in crisis. The College already partners with a service that provides off-hours support from licensed professional clinicians, but the co-responder program will allow the specialists to intervene immediately and provide a more targeted response from the outset.
Evans said she hopes Conn can serve as a model for other colleges and universities.
“College is a time of great change, when many mental health issues start to emerge. Having a provider who can work through a crisis situation when and where it happens is extremely valuable,” she said.
“I hope to help develop and implement more co-responder programs throughout the U.S.”
But not every social worker is cut out for the job of riding along with police officers. Evans explains that it takes a certain skill set—and a certain personality.
“You are going to be in the car with someone for 10 hours, you are going to be spending a lot of time together,” she notes.
There’s also inherent risk involved.
“I feel like my officers do their best to keep me safe, but they can’t predict all situations,” Evans says. “We’ve had clinicians shot at or involved in shootings, but I haven’t really felt like my life has been threatened. I’m always very aware of my surroundings.”