The Toolkit

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Overview of Community Responder Programs

Community responder programs position health professionals and staff trained in crisis response as first responders to 911 and other emergency calls for service, as well as social disturbances. These teams provide immediate assistance for people experiencing behavioral health (i.e., mental health and substance use) crises, conduct wellness checks, help people with housing needs, and more. While many community responder programs are relatively new, the concept of using trained health professionals to assist people in crisis and connect them to support services has been around for decades. As existing programs across the U.S. prove to be successful, they are helping to expand first response efforts and reimagine public safety. These jurisdictions show how community responder programs, when implemented as part of a larger network of crisis responses and social services, can improve outcomes while also reducing unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system. Now, jurisdictions nationwide are building or expanding their own community responder programs to meet local needs.

Practices to Implement an Effective Community Responder Program

1. Understand the need for the program

Before implementing a community responder program, jurisdictions should first understand and articulate why they want such a program, what challenges they are looking to address, who should be involved in the planning process, what goals they want to achieve, etc. Read More…

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In order to do this, most jurisdictions have formed a planning team and/or a community stakeholder group to seek input from relevant people within the community, build plans for a sustainable program, and establish processes for continued improvements. This team or group will also determine how the program will coordinate with partner agencies to assist in daily operations.

2. Develop the program in collaboration with community members and local providers

Communities most impacted by disproportionately high police presence, rates of poverty, and involvement in the criminal justice system should be at the center of planning and implementation processes for such programs. Read More…

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In most instances, grassroots organizations and other advocates in the community have been working to build programs to assist people in need and, therefore, are great resources for jurisdictions interested in developing a community responder program. Jurisdictions should seek their input first to help evaluate and assess the need for a community responder program and how it can be most effective. Some important ways to get input from community members include conducting surveys, holding focus groups, and meeting with advocates who have likely already gathered feedback from residents. Additionally, since these programs will need to be part of a larger network of responses and services to be most effective, the planning team should also collaborate with representatives from 211, 311, 911, local crisis lines, law enforcement, emergency medical services (EMS), and community-based health and social service providers.

3. Determine the types of calls the program will address and services it will provide

Jurisdictions need to identify the types of calls (see call triage section for more information) that are most appropriate for community members trained in crisis response as first responders and don’t require police presence. Read More…

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These may include calls for disorderly conduct, noise complaints, or wellness checks. When designing the program, the community should consider the role of the community responder program and how it will complement other efforts to enhance their crisis services. The calls that the program will address should inform the types of services that the team(s) will provide, the initial and ongoing training staff will need, and the data that should be collected to provide a baseline for any needed improvements. Many jurisdictions have also conducted pilot programs in high-need areas to determine the most appropriate services to provide before scaling these efforts across a city or county.

4. Decide on the program structure and location

Most community responder programs are overseen by one of three entities: a nonprofit agency, an existing government agency, or a newly created government agency. As the planning process begins, the community should help determine which neighborhoods will have community responders or where to pilot the program (if applicable). Read More…

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Some existing community responder programs have started with a pilot in specific neighborhoods at certain times of day and then chosen to scale up as needed.

5. Determine staffing and training needs

Typical community responder teams are made up of two to four people and can include social workers, behavioral health or harm-reduction case managers, peer support specialists, community health workers, emergency medical technicians, nurses, or others trained in crisis response as first responders. Read More…

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Depending on the types of services and supports the team is going to provide, these individuals may need training in conflict de-escalation, mental health response, substance use response, and basic medical care (e.g., first aid, naloxone administration). If teams are planning to respond to basic medical needs and drug overdoses, then there should also be conversations about staffing the team with back up medical support as needed. Successful community responder teams also are staffed with people who have established trust, or who are able to develop trusting relationships, with the people they are going to serve. It may be an advantage for staff members to have a previous history or direct experience with the criminal justice or behavioral health systems; this common experience with clients can help responders build trust with the people they are working with.

6. Identify how the program can help address existing systemic biases

Many lower income, and in particular “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color” (BIPOC) communities have for years experienced reduced access to health care services because of systemic biases in the U.S. health care system. This has often contributed to an increase in justice system involvement and interactions with police. Read More…

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Community responder programs have sought to address these concerns by working with community members to think differently about first responders and rebuild crisis systems that advance justice, support human dignity, and promote equity. As part of these efforts, they have advocated for additional funding for health services in underserved neighborhoods. They have also pushed for funding to be directed to service providers who have already been serving communities hit hardest by the national disinvestment in community health care and social services, such as BIPOC communities and people with behavioral health conditions.