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Mifflin County Regional Police Department adds mental health response to force

A Mifflin County police agency is adding new resources to the force, hoping to improve its ability to respond to mental health situations.

MIFFLIN COUNTY, Pa. — Mental health concerns are gaining more attention across the country.

"It's been a national issue in recent years and we looked at that quite a bit over the last couple of years," said Chief David Clemens of the Lewistown Borough Police Department.

That's why Lewistown Borough Police added a new role to the department in 2021, mirroring a similar program in Franklin County, aiming to keep people experiencing mental health issues out of jail.

"We went and visited that program and liked what we saw so much that we brought the idea back to our criminal justice advisory board," said Bob Henry, deputy administrator of Juniata Valley Behavioral and Developmental Services.

Now, mental health co-responders work hand-in-hand with officers full-time, accompanying police on crisis calls and de-escalating domestic conflicts. 

The program's success caught the attention of the Mifflin County Regional Police Department, which hired a co-responder in the last week.

"We slap a band-aid on the situation and then the officers are off to the next call," said Chief Andre French. "What the co-responder project will allow us to do, is offer some meaningful aftercare."

"We often describe it as almost a temporary case-management role," added Joshua Gates, the co-responder program supervisor at the center for community resources. "We're filling the gaps in between these people that are in crisis and getting them set up with permanent services.

While Mifflin Regional's program gets started, Lewistown's program serves hundreds each year, offering regular follow-ups in many cases. Lewistown police co-responder Kristen Wiser said officers always lead the way.

"They are always the first one in the door, starting the conversation, and then they introduce myself," Wiser said. "We work together to figure out, with the family, what we can do to help them."

"Even when people are in difficult positions, I think they find the co-responder to be more useful than if they weren't there," Gates added.

Law enforcement officials hope other departments are encouraged by the success of the co-responder programs and consider adding mental health professionals to their teams.

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