YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — It’s not an entirely new concept. But York County has become among the earlier adopters of “co-responders” to work alongside law enforcement officers, according to a national expert in police conduct and misconduct.
That, in turn, is thanks to the confluence of two controversial deaths, one local and one among the best-known national cases.
York’s co-responder program, unveiled Tuesday, is the direct result of a recommendation by the grand jury that investigated the death of Everett Palmer, Jr., at York County Prison, two days after he was arrested in Lancaster County for alleged drunken driving. The grand jury didn’t find criminal wrongdoing but recommended two dozen changes to prevent a future death like Palmer’s. Palmer died after corrections officers tried to restrain him while he was having an episode likely related to mental health issues and (based on the county coroner’s report) the consumption of methamphetamine, according to the grand jury findings.
Recommendation No. 22: “A co-responder model should be adopted and crisis intervention practices should continue throughout law enforcement, the York County Prison, and the Probation Services Department.”
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The co-responder concept, in turn, gained traction following the May 2020 death in Minneapolis of George Floyd while in the custody of the police, including Derek Chauvin, who was later convicted of murder, according to David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. In Pennsylvania, Dauphin County launched a co-responder program earlier this year.
Harris said not enough data exists to definitively characterize the success of co-responder programs. But he said the early returns look promising.
And the very early returns look good in York, according to leaders who spoke Tuesday.
“I could see dividends of having a co-responder in our office already,” York Area Regional Police Chief Tim Damon said, describing an interaction he had witnessed a day earlier between co-responder Angie Alvarez and an officer in the department. “And we are new at this.”
Alvarez previously worked within the criminal justice system, including in prisons, but says she’s better-positioned to help now.
“This way I get to help people before they get to those areas and have continual support for them,” she said.
Even when police officers are well trained, it doesn’t make sense to ask the same people charged with maintaining peace to try to assess someone’s mental health at the same time.
“Police aren’t the answer to every problem,” Harris said. “But society and cities have been making them the answer because they’re the only ones who have actually been responding to our problems. We have inadequately funded mental health treatment, inadequately funded programs for the homeless and the drug-addicted. So police end up as the only responders to this, and it really hasn’t proven out to be anything other than a mistake.”
Leaders of York County entities collaborating on the program, including District Attorney Dave Sunday and President Commissioner Julie Wheeler spoke alongside police chiefs and Alvarez, the co-responder, at Tuesday’s event.
A spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Bruce Brandler told abc27 News Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Justice’s own investigation into Palmer’s death continues.