Buncombe County Sheriff’s office launches co-responder program for people in crisis
Touting the success of a pilot program, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office announced the formal launch of a partnership between the county’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) program.
Known as the Co-Responder Unit, the program aims to connect people in crisis with local resources and divert those struggling with mental health, addiction, and other behavioral issues from unnecessary arrests and what sometimes becomes adversarial contact with the criminal justice system.
In practice, the program sends out an officer along with a licensed mental health professional and/or a member of the county’s community paramedic team for scenarios such as wellness checks and trespassing.
The team can also provide medication-assisted treatment for people fighting opioid addiction. If an officer determines they’re not the best equipped person to respond to the issue, they then hand off duties to folks who have more relevant expertise.
“Nationally, we've seen a lot of situations where people who have mental health issues end up having confrontations with the police,” Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller told BPR in an interview at the announcement on Friday at the county’s emergency services building
“Bottom line, this wasn’t always coming out in a positive manner, so we started asking the questions. What else can we do when we respond that would meet people where they are and give them the services they need?”
Miller also took the opportunity to repeat a phrase he’s echoed consistently since he was elected as sheriff in 2018.
“We can’t arrest our way out,” he said. “What I mean by that is when we arrest someone, we haven’t helped them. And when they get out of jail, they face the same situations and have the same needs they had before.”
What does it mean to “co-respond?”
The pilot program that ran from mid-June to early August 2023 included one officer, Sergeant Bryan Freeborn, along with two licensed mental health professionals contracted by the EMS department. Of the 191 service calls fielded by the Co-Responder Unit in the pilot phase zero arrests were made, according to Freeborn.
At Friday’s press conference, Freeborn recounted one scenario where the unit received a call to help transport an unhoused person to the hospital who had a “combative” history and was “sleeping on the sidewalk” in Swannanoa.
At the advice of the community paramedic, the unit instead transported the person to the Haywood Street Congregation’s social support program, where he eventually gained long-term housing through Medicaid and VA benefits.
“That's the kind of example of what we're going to do as a program, day in and day out: divert people away from the jail, divert people away from the hospital and find long term solutions to short-term problems,” Freeborn said.
Dr. Shuchin Shukla, an addiction physician and consultant on the project, told BPR the co-responder program is also beneficial for communities of color who tend to be “overpoliced.”
“Even though Black and Brown communities have lower rates of substance use than white communities across the nation, they are incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than white communities,” Shukla said.
“So this [co-responder program] is not only good for public safety, a better use of taxpayer funds – but it's also an equity issue because it's gonna allow for people who are already overpoliced in our communities to have a better life line of treatment rather than jail.”
How will the program grow?
The program launched with one officer, the sheriff’s public information officer Aaron Sarver confirmed. The EMS side of the operations is funded through a combination of county money and opioid settlement funds, Sarver said.
“To date, there has not been any specific budget requests or allocation for this co-responder unit. This is basically like a new configuration of existing personnel,” he said.
While the co-responder program is not heavily staffed now, Miller told BPR the department plans to grow the program. Miller did not offer any details for expansion.
“This is the launch, but the program will grow,” he said. “We’ve got to take it one step at a time. Our commissioners have been extremely supportive. So our belief is if we start building this, that we will continue to grow and build it. And I think our commissioners will support us.”