Colo. sheriff's office to pair mental health specialists with deputies

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office deputies will be paired with behavioral health specialist on calls where mental health is believed to be a concern

By Kaitlin Durbin
The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Before the Colorado Springs Police Department started its Community Response Team to better assist residents dealing with mental health issues, one woman was calling 911 about 300 times a year.

Other similar "super-users" could tie up officers' time for hours, though the person wasn't committing a crime and didn't pose a risk to the community. But in those situations, officers were limited to three options: to neutralize the situation as best as possible and leave the person as they were; transport them to city emergency rooms also unequipped to handle psychological needs; or take the person to jail.

At the time, about 90 percent of people who officers deemed in need of immediate treatment were sent to the ER, according to police Cmdr. Scott Whittington. Thanks to the CRT team, which is comprised of an officer, a mental health professional and a paramedic, those commitments are now down to about 10 percent, he said.

The majority of patients now stay in their home and receive specialized care plans for addressing their mental health needs while reducing their reliance on emergency services, Whittington said. And while CRT is doing its job, patrol officers are free to handle other priority calls.

"If you talk to officers and ask them what the best program the Police Department has developed in the last decade they will say the CRT team, because they used to feel like they're not solving things, they're just putting a Band-Aid on it and they'll be back tomorrow," Whittington said. Now, the program "gets the right people seeing the citizens instead of a police officer."

El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder wants to share in that success.

The Sheriff's Office applied for and has been granted Colorado Department of Human Services money to start its own five-year co-responder program, which will pair a behavioral health specialist with a deputy on calls where mental health is believed to be a concern. While the final grant amount has not been determined, the CDHS said it will offer up to $362,500 to each of the eight Colorado communities selected for the project.

The funds are available through sales tax revenue from the sale of medical and recreational marijuana.

"Sometimes they are committing crimes and we have to take them to jail, and we have mental health treatment (in jail) to deal with that, but a lot of time mental health issues are just calls for service," Elder said. "This gives us an ability to attack it in a different way."

The co-responder team will be able to get people care or connect them to community resources like AspenPointe or Cedar Springs Hospital, which is hoped to also reduce the jail population. Overcrowding became a major concern this year when the El Paso County jail set two new records with 1,791 and 1,794 inmates, close to its 1,837 capacity, Elder said.

During a tour of the jail, Detention Bureau Chief Mitch Lincoln estimated between 60 percent and 75 percent of inmates had some degree of mental illness. One ward is devoted to the most severe cases, in which inmates shout obscenities, smear feces on their cell walls and shake their nude bodies in front of the window.

By having staff in the field trained to deal with those behaviors, Elder said he hopes to be able to resolve tense situations faster and spare some from jail. If those efforts reduced the jail population by even 50 or 60 people it would be a major relief, he said.

"The city saw big change and that's what we're hoping for," Elder said.

CSPD has been operating its co-responder program through a different grant since December 2014. It staffs two teams which share in 10 hour shifts, 7 days a week, but is looking to start a third team this year working swing shift, about 2 p.m. to midnight, Whittington said.

Last year, the CRT teams responded to 3,116 incidents involving 1,880 patients, Whittington said. In 1,714 of those cases, the first responding officer was able to be freed to handle other calls while CRT handled the mental health need. It also released 247 fire department units for the same, he said.

©2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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