Colorado pairing police officers with mental health experts
DENVER — Colorado is pushing for new approaches to how police officers handle cases involving mental illness and drug addiction, encouraging them to steer low-level offenders toward treatment rather than jail and giving them assistance in dealing with potentially dangerous situations.
In one tactic, mental health professionals ride with officers during 911 responses and some routine patrols. In another, local communities place case managers into high-crime areas to help police keep drug users, prostitutes and other offenders out of the criminal justice system.
Several law enforcement agencies in Colorado already are using these strategies. The Colorado Department of Human Services is pushing further, planning to distribute $16 million over the next three years to support such efforts. The state will award $5.3 million this month. As many as 12 police departments could use the money to emphasize treatment over incarceration.
“For Colorado, this is a brand new way of thinking,” said Jagruti Shah, director of criminal justice services for the human services department. “What you currently are seeing with a lot of these individuals with behavioral health issues is they keep circling. You have law enforcement addressing mental health and substance-use issues as opposed to patrolling and stopping crime.”
Similar initiatives in Los Angeles and Seattle have drawn praise from criminologists and treatment providers. In some instances, the new philosophy could result in drug offenders learning to use clean needles as opposed to continuing to share dirty needles that can cause infections and spread diseases. In other instances, those more receptive to intervention could be steered toward job training, new housing, and treatment for schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders.
Co-responders, or behavioral health clinicians, ride with police when they respond to 911 calls and provide follow-up services when officers leave the scene. They also can be a resource for police in deescalating situations before they end tragically, such as the fatal New Year’s Eve shooting of a Douglas County deputy responding to a domestic disturbance call.
Maigan Oliver, director of acute and forensic services with Mental Health Partners, which partners with Boulder police to send mental health professionals out on 911 calls, said the Boulder county attorney’s office is a big backer of the program.
Sending mental health professionals with police helps defend against litigation over any potential use of force, the county attorney has pointed out, according to Oliver. “If there is ever a case, there is always the question of, ‘Did you use every resource available to you?'” Oliver said.
In another strategy, case managers canvass targeted high-crime areas and establish relationships with drug users and prostitutes, even going so far as to sit down with them over coffee. These case managers work with police to keep these offenders off the streets and out of jail.
Mental health and substance-use disorders are growing problems in Colorado, which has the sixth highest suicide rate in the nation. Colorado also consistently ranks in the bottom half of per-capita funding levels in state surveys on behavioral health spending. Colorado’s own studies show that nearly 40 percent of Colorado’s inmate population needs mental health services and 74 percent needs substance-use disorder services. The state spent more than $94 million in 2013 incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.
The hope of the new diversion philosophy is to start addressing problems before people become enmeshed in the criminal justice system. Police and clinicians and case managers try to avoid arrests. The thinking is that incarceration disrupts employment and tears families apart, ultimately setting up a cycle of failure that can cause a person to slide even further into crime.
The philosophy got support during the last legislative session from both Republican and Democratic legislators, who overwhelmingly approved appropriating the money that the human services department’s plans to distribute throughout the state.
A handful of cities in Colorado already have established fledgling diversion programs. Behavioral health clinicians are embedded in the Longmont, Boulder and Denver police departments and, to a lesser extent, the Boulder and Denver sheriff’s departments.
For nearly two years, six clinicians from the Mental Health Center of Denver have ridden in the squad cars of some police officers patrolling downtown and the Park Hill neighborhood. Next year, Denver will add 16 more clinicians with hopes of eventually having them assist in police patrols in all areas of the city as well riding with firefighters when they respond to emergency calls.
“These clinicians are worth their weight in gold,” said Denver police Lt. Ian Culverhouse, who often takes a clinician with him when he responds to a 911 call.
The clinicians have steered the needy toward treatment and care, he said. One family that repeatedly called police for help dealing with a teen with behavioral issues formed a bond with one of the clinicians, Culverhouse said. The clinician was able to steer the teen to treatment services to help her deal with a severe mental health disorder. The 911 calls gradually tapered off as the teen began to thrive in therapy, he recalled.
“It has resulted in a reduction in calls for us, so we can better deploy officers throughout the city,” Culverhouse said. “Some in the city are repeat actors, and they tie up a lot of law enforcement resources. This ends up stopping that cycle.”
Although police officers in Denver receive 40 hours of crisis-intervention training, the clinicians can have a calming effect while also helping officers continue to learn new approaches, according to those who have watched them in action.
Katie Glowacki said the clinicians understand the issues that her family faced after adopting two daughters who had been abused for years. One of those girls, a 16-year-old, has struggled with anger and abandonment issues, causing her to lash out violently, prompting Glowacki to repeatedly seek police assistance.
Glowacki, a licensed clinical social worker, said that in one difficult interaction, a police officer blamed Glowacki for not being a good-enough parent instead of providing the support the family needed. Once the clinicians started coming to the house with the police, they helped ease those tensions. The daughter is now receiving residential treatment in addition to the support services Glowacki had already put in place.
“The clinicians recognized this was a mental health issue,” Glowacki said. “They have the training. The police have their experience, and they have the training they have, but the mental health professionals who ride along with them are master degree-trained mental health professionals. That makes a difference.”
The clinicians assisting police in Denver made nearly 1,000 contacts with people in 2017, with only 2.4 percent resulting in an arrest. They connected 334 people to formal outpatient mental health treatment and referred 68 to child or adult protective services. Another 49 were taken to walk-in crisis centers, and 33 were taken to detox facilities. More than 200 were put on a mental health hold or hospitalized.
The program in Longmont and Boulder originally was launched in 2013 with a $1 million grant that paired police with clinicians provided by Mental Health Partners in Boulder. Once that grant funding ran out in October 2016, the police departments and Boulder sheriff’s office elected to continue funding it.
From March 2014 through March 2016, those clinicians came into contact with more than 1,100 individuals, with nearly 44 percent receiving follow-up care. State officials estimate the program in Boulder County costs about $600,000 annually but saves about $3 million annually, primarily by reducing jail costs due to fewer incarcerations.
One troubled veteran who repeatedly used to call 911, sometimes as often as five times a day, found the support he needed through the co-responder program, Oliver said.
“Basically, it came down to he wanted someone to talk to,” Oliver recalled. “One of our peers followed up and started having coffee with him. They met regularly at first, and then that went down to once a month. He had somebody he felt he could connect with, and that solved the issue. Just by him not calling 911, how much money does that save? All that money once was going into this one guy.”