“Co-responders” ride with police, defuse difficult situations

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DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Over the years, abc27 News has reported numerous stories about police responding to calls that end up involving mental health issues. As one police officer said, “SWAT teams are becoming the gatekeepers to mental health care.” Now many police departments are turning to a different approach with the presence of co-responders.

In Derry Township, Gina Ambromitis rides with Officer Greg Mowery as he answers calls in the township. The retired probation officer is part of Dauphin County’s co-responder program that Ashley Yinger oversees for the District Attorney’s office.

“What they do is they are embedded with the police department,” Yinger said, “and do ride alongs to help the officers in responding to any individual that’s having a behavioral health crisis, and being able to link and coordinate them to treatment services.”

Services that also include drug and alcohol to family counseling. Dauphin County has a total of 121 trained thus far; eighty-seven of those are police officers.

Co-responders go through a battery of training: 40 hours on Crisis Intervention, 16 hours of Motivational Interviewing training, another 16 hours of drug and alcohol training, online training on mental health and diverting individuals to treatment, shadowing experienced co-responders — and not to mention, time with police officers learning how to protect themselves should a situation turn dangerous.

Co-responders are being kept busy.

“I’ve been actively working for two weeks now, and I’ve had twelve calls so far,” Gina Ambromitis, who’s working for both Derry Township and Hummelstown, said. “Recognizing that people go through crises at times and that we meet people on their worst day, and I’m hoping to help make a change in their day for the better, and guide them to the services they may need, and not to prison.”

Whether it’s because of social unrest, pandemic stress, or simply because there are more co-responders to go around, the use of this service is growing. In 2020, co-responders had a total of 389 referrals. In just the first two months of 2021, there have been 152.

Chief Garth Warner of the Derry Township Police Department is enthusiastic about the program.

“It’s a tool for us to be able to use when police officers show up at a scene, we are limited to the number of options that we have,” Warner said. “We’re there most of the time to try to contain a situation that may be volatile, may be out of control, and our mission is to try to contain that situation, make sure nobody gets hurt.”

Harrisburg, Swatara, and Lower Paxton police also use the de-escalation service. Lydia Hoke, who has worked in the mental health sector, is the co-responder for Susquehanna Township Police. She says the program bridges law enforcement and health care workers.

“We can definitely work with law enforcement, with the officers out there,” she says. “If there’s potentially a dangerous situation we’re in there to de-escalate with any individuals. So the officers take care of their part, we take care of our part, so we just kind of pull it all together.”

The rank and file seem to be getting behind the program, as well.

Clee Tilman, Patrolman First Class for Susquehanna Township Police says working with the co-responders has been an eye-opening experience.

“I think it’s the wave of the future and I think there’s going to be a lot of positive outcomes with this training and these mental health co-responders,” Tilman said.

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