Prince William County police officials are already hoping to double the size of the department’s “co-responder” pilot program, a new effort that pairs mental health clinicians and local police officers to respond to mental health emergencies, to react to a growing number of such calls in the county.
The “co-responder” program is designed to help de-escalate situations involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis without the use of force and to provide those individuals with the appropriate services and resources.
When responding to a call, mental health clinicians who accompany police officers wear white polo shirts that identify them as “co-responder clinicians.”
The program began with one mental health specialist and one police officer trained in crisis intervention in 2019 and was expanded earlier this year by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. Two new co-responder units began serving in the county on Dec. 7.
But already, police officials say there is a need for additional units to respond to a growing need.
“There is an immediate need that we could double the size of it right now,” said acting-Police Chief Jarad Phelps after a Prince William Board of County Supervisors work session on Tuesday, Dec. 8. “We already recognize that we need more.”
Phelps said that the program has had “some great successes” including several aversions of suicide attempts and has the support of the county’s police officers. But right now, Phelps said it is “almost first-come-first-served” for county residents in need of mental health help.
As soon as a team is called to a mental health crisis, “they’re tied up, and if we have another call, they can’t go,” Phelps said.
Prince William County Director of Public Safety Communications Eddie Reyes said Tuesday that the county’s 911 call center has seen a noticeable uptick in emergency mental health calls since the pandemic began in March. He said that, ordinarily, the call center receives about 150 emergency mental health calls on a monthly basis.
“We have noticed an increase in volume in calls for service from persons either attempting suicide or going through some kind of mental health crisis since March of this year,” Reyes said.
Reyes raised the prospect of hiring an additional mental health specialist to be embedded into the county’s 911 center to triage calls for mental health help.
“Some of these calls can tie up one of our call-takers for up to 30 minutes,” Reyes said. “We can’t rush a person who is having suicidal tendencies or that they are going through some kind of mental health crisis. You have to give that person the dedicated time they deserve.”
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved $900,000 in new spending to expand the “co-responder” program during budget negotiations earlier this year with funding for the three mental health specialists, three crisis trained officers and two program supervisors.
Right now, the program is only in service Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., but the county and police department have said they would like to expand the program to provide 24/7 service, which could require up to 11 “co-responder” teams and a sizable financial investment.
Phelps said more data is needed to determine exactly how many units would be needed to staff the program around the clock.
“We need more data to determine what the appropriate distribution of staff would be at certain times,” Phelps said. “That’s something we’re going to be looking for. But we already know this resource needs more therapists and it needs more officers to be able to provide for our community.”
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors did not weigh in on the issue during the work session. The board will begin its annual budget cycle in early 2021.