Calling for Frank: Little-known police unit helps Omahans in crisis. That includes me.

A small unit inside the Omaha Police Department helps to handle the deluge of mental health crises that police grapple with daily. One out of every three 911 calls OPD responded to last year was tied to mental health. The co-responders unravel mental health mysteries. They also help victims of crime, including Yanqi Xu, this story’s author.

Natalya Flaten heard the officer ask for the “Frank Unit” on police radio on a recent winter morning. 

Rising behind her desk nestled among sergeants’ in the Omaha Southwest Precinct office, Flaten put on a bulletproof vest, grabbed her case brimming with program pamphlets and climbed in a city vehicle, driving to meet police officers on scene. 

Once she arrived, she met the caller: A woman, curled up in a ball, sobbing and slurring her words. 

No one knew what was wrong. 

It’s Flaten’s job – a relatively new job, called a “co-responder” – to help the police department navigate the tidal wave of mental health needs they encounter daily. 

It’s her job to help victims of crime through the aftermath of that traumatic event – as Flaten did for me personally when I became one of those survivors in 2022.

It’s also her job to help unravel potential mental health mysteries like the sobbing, confused woman.

The woman had gone to the emergency room the night before, only to be told she was fine and should go home. 

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She called 911. She started throwing up. Police officers thought she might be drunk, but to Flaten, something else seemed off. 

Flaten took the woman back to the ER. Upon arriving, a hospital employee asked Flaten, “You got another psych patient?” 

No, Flaten said, but you should check her again. Her symptoms seem consistent with a head injury. 

Later, Flaten received a text from the caller: “I have a concussion!”

Recounting the story, Flaten briefly considers what would happen if co-responders like her didn’t exist. 

“If she had just been left to wonder what was happening, it would have been miserable,” Flaten said. 

Sgt. Jason Heft, Co-responder Natalya Flaten (motioning), Mental Health Coordinator Lindsay Kroll, and co-responder Ashley Brugmann at their regular Wednesday meeting at OPD Headquarters on Jan. 17, 2024. Each Omaha Police Department precinct has at least one co-responder, who get called or self-dispatches to calls involving Omahans in a mental health crisis. Photo by Joseph Saaid for the Flatwater Free Press

At each Omaha police precinct, one or two mental health co-responders get called or self-dispatch to 911 calls alongside law enforcement. They are mental health professionals embedded with the department and known to their sworn colleagues as the therapists from the Frank Unit.

Flaten’s encounter with the woman was one of the 1,322 in-person interactions these six co-responders made with Omahans in a potential mental health crisis in 2023.

Roughly a third of 911 calls routed to the Omaha Police Department are now related to mental health, said Sgt. Jason Heft, who co-leads the behavioral health and wellness unit, which includes mental health co-responders.

That number has more than doubled in the past three years – jumping to 10,307 calls in 2023 – partly because officers and dispatchers are becoming more aware of the mental health needs behind the calls.

A police officer might be dealing with a traffic accident, a civil disturbance or a shoplifting call. And 911 is often the number that springs to mind for a person in a crisis since it guarantees a response, said Lindsay Kroll, the Omaha Police Department’s mental health coordinator.

It takes someone with the expertise and patience to understand what’s happening below the surface, Heft thinks, to diagnose the underlying issue. 

In a given week, a co-responder might accompany a homeless person to a shelter, assess whether an Omahan needs a mental health evaluation, follow up with contacts who struggle with mental illnesses, console several victims of crime, talk a suicidal person out of an attempt – and rush to the scene of a suicide to console grieving family members. 

The Omaha Police Department pairs up a co-responder and a police officer to respond to Omahans in potential mental health crises. The co-responder program started as a pilot project in 2018 through Lutheran Family Services, then transitioned to OPD in 2020. It became city-funded this fiscal year. Photo by Joseph Saaid for the Flatwater Free Press

Much of this work takes buy-in from police agencies willing to embrace the co-responder approach, said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who co-chairs that university’s co-responder operation. It makes sense because police officers aren’t always suited to respond to mental health crises, both experts and police officers themselves say. 

The idea of sending mental health professionals out on calls is far from new. Among the famed forerunners: CAHOOTS, started in 1989 in Eugene, Oregon, which deploys a medic and mental health specialist to lower-risk calls. 

Since George Floyd’s 2020 murder, more law enforcement agencies have started in-house co-responder programs as communities demand a non-violent approach to de-escalating mental health crises. 

“It’s a long time coming,” Harris said. 

Both the Omaha Police Department and city leaders say they see the co-responder program’s value. 

Jose Falcon, an OPD patrol officer, notices it when an Omahan refusing to talk to police opens up to the co-responder. Heft says the program saves millions of dollars by diverting people from unnecessary arrests, jail time, hospitalization and fines. 

Brad Negrete at Lutheran Family Services headquarters at 7929 West Center Road on Jan. 17, 2024. Negrete manages the mental health co-responders programs for Grand Island, Kearney and Fremont. He also runs a mobile crisis response team that helps co-responders in the Omaha area. Photo by Joseph Saaid for the Flatwater Free Press

Brad Negrete, assistant vice president of health and wellness services at Lutheran Family Services, manages the co-responder programs in Kearney, Grand Island and Fremont, and runs a mobile crisis response team that partners with OPD to provide additional help when co-responders are busy.

Negrete’s sister drove into the Missouri River with her three young children 24 years ago. He believes those four lives could have been saved if there had been co-responders. 

“We didn’t know who to call … I think having the services that we have now would have greatly impacted our family,” he said. 

The Omaha co-responder program first existed as a pilot project through Lutheran Family Services. Then, starting in 2020, it became a part of the police department itself, one initially funded by philanthropy. This year, for the first time, Omaha started funding co-responder positions out of the city’s general fund.

“The co-responders support the citizens who call 911 in crisis. Their needs can often be better addressed with the support of a co-responder than a law enforcement officer,” said Mayor Jean Stothert in an email statement. Police “Chief (Todd) Schmaderer and I are committed to the funding we need to support the behavioral health unit …” 

Co-responders also help police officers themselves, Kroll and Flaten said, providing support to officers suffering from burnout and post-traumatic stress. They have also trained officers on crisis intervention. More than 370 Omaha police officers – close to half of sworn officers – have gone through the 40-hour program.

Roughly 200 times a month, the work of the mental health co-responders affects an Omahan’s life. 

And, in June 2022, it touched mine. 

Do you need help? If you’re calling 911 when you or someone else is experiencing an acute mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, tell the dispatcher it’s a mental health call or ask for a mental health co-responder. You can also dial 988 for the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.


Having a mental health professional to lean on when you need it most can be life-changing. That’s what I felt after calling Flaten, who pulled me out of what seemed like desperation. 

Earlier on that June 2022 day, while running errands in midtown Omaha, I said yes to a teenager who asked for a ride to a gas station. After I pulled over, he told me to get out of my car and give him my key. I tried to run away. He caught me and threw me to the ground in front of the gas station. He bit my fingers as he tried to wrest my car keys from my hands. Bystanders called the police, who quickly caught him and asked me to identify the teenager. 

I learned from an officer at the scene that the teen had been involved in the juvenile justice system. Now, the officer said, he would be responsible for his behavior. My heart sank. I report on the criminal justice system and know the daunting challenges many juvenile justice-involved kids face. I felt awful. I felt guilty. I felt like everyone had lost, including me. My elbow throbbed and my entire body became increasingly sore after the initial shock numbing my senses wore off.

Then, when I asked about mental health help, the police officer at the scene handed me a card. Hours later, after I returned home from a doctor’s office, I punched the numbers into my cell phone. As the phone rang I barely had any inkling of what I wanted and what to expect. 

Flaten picked up.

“A police officer gave me your phone number. Can I talk to you?” I asked her. 

Yes, she said immediately. 

From left, Sgt. Jason Heft, Co-responder Natalya Flaten, Mental Health Coordinator Lindsay Kroll, and co-responder Ashley Brugmann at their regular Wednesday meeting at OPD Headquarters on Jan. 17, 2024. Co-responders had 1,322 in-person interactions with Omahans in some sort of crisis in 2023. In 2022, that included one interaction Flaten had with the author of this story. Photo by Joseph Saaid for the Flatwater Free Press

Her tone and message struck me as markedly different from others I heard in the crime’s aftermath. 

The police officer who handed me the card had little support to offer, and told me to go home with my car’s door handle still covered in black dust used to lift the teenager’s fingerprints. Family and friends had said I probably “learned my lesson.” 

Flaten was nonjudgmental. She told me I didn’t need to justify any decisions I made. 

She taught me the box breathing method. Draw a square, she said. I drew one on my notebook, my right hand still shaky and hurting, the lines crooked. 

Start from the top corner, she said, breathe in, count four seconds. Move to the next corner and hold for four, breathe out. Corner, breathe, hold, repeat. 

We talked about our shared Asian heritage and how culture can impact decision-making around mental health needs. She told me a story about when kindness had been turned against her, and gave me advice about rebuilding trust.

After an hour, I thanked her and said I was finally feeling more grounded. 

Just before we hung up, she asked me what I would be doing for the rest of the day. 

I smiled and felt I could shake off the newly assumed identity of a crime victim for a bit. 


Before we hung up, Flaten told me she was going to continue her day with other mental health calls, not knowing what to expect. She didn’t know she would go on to help someone in a psychosis. She didn’t yet know she would speak to a man who had just lost his wife. 

And fellow co-responder Ashley Brugmann had no idea what to expect the day when she recently arrived with a canine unit and the SWAT team to talk to a man barricaded inside his father’s apartment when the police came to arrest him for an alleged crime. 

The co-responder kneeled behind a police shield that officers had propped outside a window. The man stood across the room from her.

He talked. Brugmann’s training had taught her she was there to listen.

“There’s no need to rush the process. There’s no need to beg the people to come out. There’s no need to be like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’” Brugmann said. “It’s just listening to them, because they want to be heard.” 

After about an hour, he came out with his hands up. Just before the police took him off to jail, the man turned to the co-responder.

“Thanks for keeping me safe,” he said.

By Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu (pronounced yen-chee shu) most recently covered courts and law for NC Newsline in North Carolina, focusing on criminal justice, voting rights, housing justice and redistricting. Prior to that, she was part of a team at the Investigative Reporting Workshop that developed the Public Accountability Project, a newsroom search tool that hosts more than 1 billion public records in one place. She hails from China, where she first developed an interest in telling stories that resonate with people, no matter where they are.


What a beautiful story, so nice to hear Omaha is being so supportive of special needs.

Thank you. This article is a valuable contribution to public safety. The recent linking of 988 and 911 services across Nebraska is a means of extending this program beyond Omaha where it is well established and useful.

Stories like this are among the reasons I value Flatwater Free Press. Thank you 😊.

What happened to the young carjacker? Will he get mental health services and/or jail time, or pay restitution? Is he a repeat offender, and if so, what tools are available to redirect his life path? Surely, this is an important part of the story.

Thank you for this article! It’s good to know that this service is out there. As an old ER nurse, I know the need is great.

Thank you for this article. It is extra special because of Yanqi Xu’s personal experience. I am proud that our city is supporting this very important service and would like to express my gratitude and admiration for these young women who are courageously acting as co-responders. I would also like to recognize and thank any other co-responders who were not mentioned in this article. Thank you all so much and thank you to our police department for making this program work.

We need this all across our great state!! Good to know this is there for people in the Omaha area. I’m in the Tri-City area and the rise of crime this way is terrible let alone the mental health issues that come with that as victims or mentally unstable perpetrators. Our jail systems need to do a better job of treatment along with incarceration. Great story!! Flatwater Free Press is the news source to read.



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