Collaborating in the Field: Doubling Down on Education About the Co-Response Model

Dr. Sarah Abbott

In one way or another, Sarah E. Abbott, PhD, Director of the Center for Crisis Response and Behavioral Health, has spent the majority of her career at the intersection of individuals experiencing a mental health crisis and the community at large. Her first exposure to work in America (after earning her BA at home, in England) came via recruitment by a nonprofit agency in central Massachusetts where Abbott spent several nights each week in a residential group home for individuals ages 18-25 with a mental health condition. While there, she witnessed first-hand the challenges associated when police responded to calls—which didn’t always go well.

“We weren’t speaking the same language, and our interactions often felt adversarial,” says Abbott of what likely planted the seed for her life-long interest in crisis work. In her next role, during a five-year stint on the crisis team at another large nonprofit in Framingham, Abbott was tasked with performing community-based assessments for individuals in crisis which sometimes involved the police.

“I fell in love with the potential of police/social work partnerships,” says Abbott of critical, collaborative work—including preparing to build rapport with an individual in crisis, a situation that can escalate quickly—that begins the moment of dispatch. “If you’ve got a co-responder next to you in the cruiser, there’s a plan in place as to who will be the most appropriate lead [upon arrival],” Abbott says of a model that, at the urging of Deputy Chief Craig Davis, took shape in 2003 when she was embedded in the Framingham Police Department as their inaugural co-responder—which, by Abbott’s definition, places master's level clinicians in police cruisers to accompany law enforcement on calls for service in order to effectuate a safe and effective resolution, one that avoids unnecessary arrests and prioritizes citizens getting the treatment they need.

“The co-response model saves lives; it saves money, it prevents unnecessary arrests and emergency department visits, and it's a win-win for everyone,” says Abbott of pioneer programming that, in recent years, has led to exciting advancements at William James College—among them the Center for Crisis Response and Behavioral Health (CRBH). Since its inception in 2022, the Center has focused on providing training and education to law enforcement and mental health professionals on effective response methods for encounters with individuals who are experiencing a psychiatric, substance-related, or mental health crisis. In keeping with the Center’s goal—to offer law enforcement and co-response clinicians the skills needed to identify, manage, and de-escalate situations involving persons in crisis—a pair of conferences is slated for this spring.

Second Annual Co-Response Research Sympsoium

On March 28-29, William James College and the Center for Crisis Response and Behavioral Health will host the Second Annual Co-Response Research Symposium at the Kimpton Marlowe Hotel in Cambridge. This symposium, aimed at engaging a niche albeit growing audience, was devised to encourage, promote, and expose the research being done in the field of co-response—“so we’re all aware of the latest advancements in research because a lot of us are very busy [on the ground] doing the work,” says Abbott whose goal is for the model to achieve the gold-standard of evidence-based practice. This year’s expanded, two-day conference will feature the research of various Co-Response practitioners and scholars at the intersection of law enforcement and individuals in crisis, including colleagues from Ireland where Abbott is part of a team working to replicate the Framingham Police co-response model.

The Flutie Foundation Partners with William James College
Law Enforcement and Autism Co-Response Collaboration

“It’s beautiful to be back in that part of the world and to see [our work] being leveraged country-wide,” says Abbott of a multi-year plan to establish a pilot Co-Responder program. In a second event, slated for April 3, the Center for Crisis Response and Behavioral Health will partner with the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism to kick off Autism Acceptance Month with an on-campus conference entitled Law Enforcement and Autism Co-Response Collaboration. This free event, featuring a pair of panel presentations and breakout sessions, is aimed at law enforcement, first-responders, Co-Response clinicians, and autism providers. 

 “One of our individual [co-response] modules in the Graduate Certificate program focuses on responding safely and effectively to people with autism who are in crisis,” says Abbott and inspired what she sees as a natural partnership with the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. The half-day, in-person event will touch on various themes and topics including advocacy, parent, and first responder perspectives on autism safety needs; autism safety resources; and a collaborative roundtable on resources and strategies to support individuals with autism in different communities. 

 “[The Flutie Foundation] has specific tools law enforcement can use to identify individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities,” says Abbott, in nod to the “Blue Envelope” bill which was unanimously passed in the Massachusetts senate earlier this year and has since moved to the House of Representatives. The goal is that widespread use of blue envelopes by drivers with autism (containing important documents and emergency contacts) will facilitate interactions between law enforcement and neuro-diverse drivers when they are pulled over.

 “Car stops are very difficult [for individuals with autism] because there’s an expectation of communication, eye contact, and calm,” says Abbott of the potential for these situations to escalate or for individuals to face consequences due to behavior that could be mistaken for resistance or noncompliance. 

William James College Selected as Framingham Police Department Provider for Co-Response Jail Diversion Program

 An exciting linchpin in this work's future is that, largely due to Abbott’s enduring relationship with the Framingham Police Department, William James College has been selected as their partner and provider for the Co-Response Jail Diversion Program.

“It's fantastic to come full circle,” says Abbott of the opportunity to further shape this work and be formally guiding the Framingham Police Co-Response program again. Groundbreaking programs, including the Graduate Certificate in Crisis Response and Behavioral Health, address a critical need for reimagining and expanding roles and opportunities in public safety and seek to create effective partnerships between mental health practitioners and law enforcement. In Framingham, the College is not only supplying clinicians to the police but also providing on-site supervision, collaboration and training—just like Abbott all those years ago. 

“Part of our work right now is [creating] a model policy for co-response which articulates the [primary] attributes—from endorsing the use of clinicians and allowing them to be in the [police] cruiser to formalizing [how this partnership works]—which has been a long time coming,” says Abbott whose vision is for this policy to endure long after she and her colleagues retire. 

If she’s learned anything over the past 20+ years in the field, it’s that reading a situation accurately and knowing how to regulate behavior quickly trumps knowing a specific diagnosis.  “The model gives rise to a natural cross-training,” says Abbott of an osmosis that occurs when mental health providers and law enforcement spend 6-8 hours together in a cruiser—something she understands acutely. 

“Co-response is a dance, it's a negotiation,” says Abbott who has helped launch 30 programs in departments across the state, and estimates there are well over 100 individuals working in this capacity statewide. “Ultimately, it works because over time [individuals in crisis] build trust in us.

The Center for Crisis Response and Behavioral Health is funded through the Department of Mental Health Jail/Arrest Diversion Grant.