New Co-Responder Program Embeds Mental Health Professional with Law Enforcement

Sarah Winfrey began work last month, making Flathead County just the second in the state to utilize a program intended to save law enforcement resources and better respond to mental health crises

By Andy Viano
Sarah Winfrey, a law enforcement co-responder with the Kalispell Police Department, pictured in downtown Kalispell on August 27, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Embedded with law enforcement throughout Flathead County and funded by a state grant written by the Western Montana Mental Health Center, the first co-responder has arrived in the Flathead Valley to help reshape how law enforcement approaches those in the throes of crisis (and vice versa), refocus law enforcement priorities and resources, and connect those in need of help with life-changing mental health services in their community.

Put more succinctly by Kalispell Chief of Police Doug Overman, the arrival of Sarah Winfrey to his office last month was nothing short of “a dream” come true.

“It has always been a recognition of mine that mental health was underserved in the community and over served by law enforcement,” he said. “We do the best we can and we try to get some training, but I never believed we were the most effective way to deal with long-term mental health issues.”

Overman and Abby Harnett, the area director for the Western Montana Mental Health Center, spent more than a year making the chief’s dream a reality. Harnett spearheaded the efforts and wrote a grant to fund the position for 12 months, convincing the Flathead County commissioners to green light the program with the strong support of law enforcement. Winfrey has a desk at the Kalispell Police Department but she is available to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office (who supplied her vehicle), Columbia Falls Police Department, Whitefish Police Department and any other office that may require her services within a 40-mile radius.

Winfrey is a trained social worker and experienced crisis therapist who arrived in Montana from Alabama (via her home state of Hawai’i) in August, first spending a week in Bozeman with a team of Gallatin County co-responders to study the program Flathead County used as a template.

Now off and running in the Flathead, Winfrey has her own radio call sign, CR-1, and while she does have the ability to “stage” herself if she hears a call where her services may be needed, she generally waits for an officer to call on CR-1. Only weeks into the job, that’s already a common occurrence. Winfrey described the scope of calls she could help with as those involving “human emotion,” an enormous spectrum that encompasses everything from the obvious — a suicidal person or someone behaving erratically — to domestic violence and death notifications.

Her secret for dealing safely and effectively with someone in the midst of any kind of mental health crisis, she said, may be as simple as four words she opens with when she first makes contact: “I’m not a cop.”

“And they’re like, ‘yeah, you don’t look like a cop,’” she said. “I say that I’m a counselor, I’m a therapist and I’m here to help.”

Kalispell Police Department police car as seen on August 14, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For her safety, Winfrey has received training on “situational awareness” from officers and wears a bulletproof vest, but she does not wear a uniform and is not armed, although she does have a background in martial arts. The idea is to make Winfrey as non-threatening as possible, a skill she learned as a therapist and honed as a horse trainer.

“Something I love doing is working with mustangs, and you have to be really aware of your emotions and the aura you’re giving off,” she said. “So you have to be aware of your body, your emotions, how you’re interacting with people, and also how they’re presenting.”

Winfrey’s demeanor and experience in de-escalation are a big part of the attraction of co-responder programs, which have been thrust into the public consciousness amid a national conversation about police reform. Co-responder programs have existed around the country for years but only arrived in Montana in July 2019, when Gallatin County’s program was launched. The movement to reallocate resources — primarily time and energy, if not money — off of police officers’ plate and onto someone like Winfrey’s is a welcome change for Overman and Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino, and will allow their departments to focus on the public safety aspect of their jobs.

Agencies do not specifically categorize calls for mental health, in part because so many different calls involve some type of mental illness or chemical dependency, but local officials say there will be an abundance of calls for Winfrey to answer, and a chance to intervene and limit repeat interactions with people who have severe, chronic mental illness. Overman recounted one person who was the subject of 77 calls to police in a single year, and countless others who could have been helped by immediate, specialized intervention.

“If you asked me today what’s the biggest surprise in my law enforcement career, it’s how much mental health ends up on our plate,” he said. “There’s no doubt, especially on a countywide basis, when we’re talking about stuff related to mental health, that’s a full-time job.”

Law enforcement has long worked closely with the mental health community, but the thing that excites both sides is the immediacy the co-responder program allows. Winfrey’s office location allows officers to interact with her regularly, and her ability to get to the scene of a crisis could help ensure the safety of the subject and the officers. Just as important is the ability to quickly connect someone to inpatient or outpatient mental health resources to try and avoid the kinds of repeated calls to law enforcement that drain department resources.

“If (people in crisis) slip through the cracks then that’s not good for them, or their family, or their community,” Winfrey said.

In practice in Flathead County, Winfrey will arrive at a scene with law enforcement and when it is declared safe for her to enter, will make contact with the person in need. At that point, law enforcement would be able to depart, potentially hours earlier than in the days before a co-responder was available. Beyond that, Winfrey has the ability and intention to follow up with the people she contacts, continuing to connect them with available resources and monitor their status.

And Winfrey, who is limited to 40 hours a week, may soon be getting reinforcements. Harnett said she has successfully secured a second grant for another co-responder in the county and expects the search for that person to begin shortly. Regardless of that new addition, Overman and Harnett are intent on proving Winfrey’s value in order to turn what is now a 12-month position into something permanent.

“I think if we have true success in this it will speak for itself,” Overman said. “And I believe that’s going to happen.”

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