William James College Launches First-of-a-Kind Police, Mental Health Practitioner Co-Response Training Program

Police officer presents at an international co-response meeting

Under the direction of Dr. Sarah Abbott, the first clinician hired for the award-winning, internationally renowned Framingham Jail Diversion Program, William James College’s cutting-edge training program for law enforcement and clinicians will reshape the way first responders approach situations involving individuals in mental health crisis.

William James College today announced a grant-funded academic initiative designed to reshape interactions between law enforcement and persons in mental health crisis. The Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH) has provided funding for a new Crisis Response and Behavioral Health Certificate Program that will offer intensive and individualized coaching for a cohort selected annually comprising law enforcement officers and mental health clinicians from departments across the state.

“The proliferation of Co-Response programs across the Commonwealth has resulted in an unprecedented demand for well-trained, well-prepared Co-Response clinicians to respond alongside law enforcement. The demand has also led to a shortage of trained clinicians statewide,” said Dr. Sarah Abbott, inaugural director of the William James College Center for Crisis Response and Behavioral Health (CRBH).

The certificate program will combine state-of-the-art technology with proven co-response methods and psychology training to teach ways to respond to dynamic, complex, and evolving situations, and to defuse and de-escalate situations before force is needed. To complement and enhance academic, counseling, and psychology training, classroom, and field instruction, the program will use the MILO™ (Multiple Interactive Learning Objectives) training system, a virtual simulation environment to be installed in a dedicated space at the College that allows instructors to create complex, open-ended situations based on real-world events.

“Critical components of our certificate curriculum include teaching officers and clinicians how to prepare for calls adequately and coordinate their response, using effective verbal communication strategies, the role of time and space in negotiations, and utilizing critical thinking skills to stay agile and responsive to rapidly changing dynamics,” Abbott said.

Certificate classes will have equal representation from both disciplines. Members of the first cohort will come from selected police departments from a variety of regions in the state. Future cohorts will be selected through an application process. Participants earn 10 academic credits through 150 classroom hours for a first-of-its-kind credential in pre-arrest diversion training. Courses will be co-taught by Abbott and adjunct law enforcement faculty.

Dr. Abbott was the first embedded clinician involved in what was then called the Framingham Jail Diversion Program (circa 2003). She has dedicated her career to providing police agencies with a working roadmap to ensure that encounters with individuals in situational, substance-related, or mental health crises have safe and effective resolutions and that the mental health needs of persons involved in traumatic events, including the officers themselves, receive appropriate care and attention. She joined the faculty of William James College in 2021.

“We know quite well the need for psychological education for first responders. Having trained personnel who can meet and engage people exhibiting psychosocial needs in crisis situations with understanding and compassion can improve mental health in our communities more broadly," said William James College President Dr. Nicholas Covino. "Dr. Abbott is an internationally known expert and is uniquely positioned to provide training to our students and first responders and to address a critical need for reimagining and to expand the roles and opportunities in public safety. We are fortunate to have her talents, expertise, and leadership at William James College.”

William James College is the first school to offer training and a certificate program in Crisis Response and Behavioral Health, and the CRBH is the first Co-Response Training and Technical Assistance Center (CR-TTAC) to be housed in an academic institution. Center activities directly support DMH's vision of providing early arrest diversion opportunities for individuals who encounter law enforcement while in crisis. Co-Response programs deliver safe and effective interventions, reduce the need for force and divert individuals into the most appropriate treatment setting.

The CRBH serves law enforcement officers, co-response clinicians, William James College students, and community-based stakeholders across the Commonwealth. Through the new certificate program and other offerings, the Center will significantly increase the capacity and number of highly trained, credentialed co-response clinicians and law enforcement officers in the Commonwealth by providing centralized access to expertise, establishing a Community of Practice, hosting an annual research symposium, and providing state-of-the-art training and robust technical assistance to departments, practitioners, and others.

In Co-Responder models, clinicians respond to calls alongside officers and attend to a variety of mental health needs that can be present at a scene. The presence of a trained mental health clinician on the scene can transform the way law enforcement officers deliver services. Clinicians are available to support the officers and are often involved in debriefing law enforcement following a critical incident.

Pre-arrest, Co-Response Programs, funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH), now operate in over 50 police departments across the Commonwealth. As other departments in the United States and abroad look to improve relations with the communities they serve, they've called on Abbott and colleagues for guidance. Abbott recently returned from Ireland where she is advising and aiding in implementing a nationwide program with An Garda Síochána, the national police and security service. 

The MILO system will be installed and in use at William James College by the end of Summer 2022 and will be available to members of the media for on-site photo/video opportunities by advance arrangement. Interviews and other photo opportunities with faculty and law enforcement collaborators are immediately available.

About William James College

Founded in 1974, William James College is an independent, non-profit institution and a leader in educating the next generation of mental health professionals to support the growing and diverse needs of the mental health workforce. Integrating field work with academics, the College prepares students for careers as organizational leaders and behavioral health professionals who are committed to helping the underserved, multicultural populations, children and families, and veterans. William James College alumni can be found making an impact in a variety of settings, including schools, the courts, clinical care facilities, hospitals, the community, and the workplace. To learn more about the College, please visit williamjames.edu.