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'Significant And Persisting' Mental Illness A Challenge for Larimer, Fort Collins Law Enforcement

Grace Hood
Fort Collins Police Department Officer Maureen Noe at work. Noe and other FCPD officers have regular training to work with those who have mental illnesses.

Larimer County law enforcement, either on the street or in the county jail, say they're seeing more significant and persisting mental illnesses like mood, bipolar, psychotic disorders and schizophrenia.

The shift is taxing resources with Emergency Rooms, health care providers, jail resources and the Fort Collins Police Department.

Scrolling through messages on a laptop inside her patrol car, it doesn't take long for veteran Fort Collins officer Maureen Noe's workday to overlap with mental illness. One message from another officer is a warning about a potentially violent situation.


“…that she has mental health issues. And she also has drug issues. But that she said that her time to assault a police officer was overdue,” she read.

Officers like Noe have been trained to handle situations like this. They’re situations that are becoming more routine. Calls related to the act of suicide or threats increased from 4.2 to 5.7 per 1,000 residents, a 36 percent increase. Calls requesting welfare related checks from the police went from 15.5 to 23 per 1,000 residents, a jump of almost 50 percent.

“It’s just this recidivism of them having a problem, getting help for the moment, and then going back into the community, and now we deal with them having a problem again. And it’s the people that are ‘frequent flyers’ that need help,” said Noe.

Rise In ‘Dual Diagnosed’ At The Jail

According to data compiled by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, people with mental illnesses are more than five times as likely to wind up in jail or prison than a psychiatric bed.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC

Because the Fort Collins Police Department doesn’t have a jail of its own, it houses inmates at the Larimer County Jail. Once inside, those with mental illnesses cross paths with clinical psychologist Dr. Janice Ort who evaluates and coordinates their care.

“The numbers of people coming into custody who are what we call dual diagnosed — so they have not only alcohol or drug problems but also psychiatric problems — has increased dramatically,” said Ort.

She is seeing more significant and persisting mental illnesses like mood, bipolar, psychotic disorders and schizophrenia. A decline in funding has decreased options for those in need of mental health treatment. Jails are one place that can’t say no to the mentally ill.

"My goal here running the jail? I want to find a way to not bring those people back as inmates a second time."

Captain Tim Palmer oversees operations at the Larimer County Jail, which spent more than $83,000 in 2013 on psychotropic medications like Risperdal to treat schizophrenia.

“My goal here running the jail? I want to find a way to not bring those people back as inmates a second time,” said Palmer.

When it comes to inmates with severe mental illnesses, Palmer said there are some costs the jail simply can’t control.

“There are times when we know someone needs to go to the state mental hospital or the court orders them to go to the state mental health hospital and there just isn’t a bed available," Palmer said. "It may take sometimes 30 days or more before we can get them there for that treatment.”

At an average cost of $87 dollars per day to house an inmate, this adds up to more than $2,600 for those 30 days.

Palmer said the jail is saving taxpayers money in other ways. The county runs a specialty probation program and has built a relationship with mental health provider Touchstone Health Partners. This helps cover the cost of expensive prescription drugs when a Touchstone client enters the jail.

“Once they’re back on their medication quite often they’re just fine. Sometimes it’s the lack of their continuity of medication that creates their involvement in the criminal justice system,” said Palmer

Finding Solutions For ‘Frequent Fliers’

There are other ways of maximizing resources in the county.

Dan Dworkin, a full-time psychologist with the Fort Collins Police Department, heads up the Interagency Group made up of police, jail officials, health providers and others helping those with chronic mental illnesses.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Dr. Dan Dworkin leads the Interagency Group meeting in Fort Collins.

“Everyone has a little piece of the puzzle in terms of what they offer in services,” Dworkin said.

Each month the group reviews dozens of cases seeking ways to coordinate services, care and treatment.

“If they don’t work together there’s a lot of wasted time, a lot of wasted effort. It’s more dangerous for everyone involved, and most importantly the individuals don’t get the actual treatment they need to help them break the cycle,” he said.

Success comes in fits and starts.

The group recently found treatment at the Fort Lyon Residential Community for one client. A forthcoming mental health court could help repeat offenders transition out of the criminal justice system.

But Dworkin said both Larimer county and the state have a long way to go, especially when it comes to funding. In 2011, voters rejected a new jail sales tax and the 15-year-old existing tax will expire at the end of 2014. To fill the void, the county stopped contributing funds to the FLEX bus line between Loveland and Fort Collins; reduced funding to animal control; cut natural resources programs; and provided incentives for departments to reduce staff.

Dworkin also notes that more psychiatric beds are desperately needed at the state hospital, the Mental Health Institute at Pueblo.

“I don’t want to communicate it any way that we’re doing well. We’re not doing well,” he said.We’re doing the best we can with the services. And that’s helpful for some, but we’re so far behind the average curve compared to other states in what resources we have available. We are really behind the 8-Ball.”

Read More: For Mental Illnesses, Steep Costs Found Behind Bars

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