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Leaving Behind Uniforms And Sirens, Summit County Sheriff Expands Crisis Response

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Leigh Paterson
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KUNC
Summit County's SMART pairs a clinician with law enforcement to respond to mental health and crisis calls.

Responding to a steady flow of 911 calls and referrals related to suicide, mental illness and welfare checks, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office will begin to expand its crisis response services in August. It’s a reflection of a growing trend across Colorado.

Through a combination of funding from the state, county and insurance company Rocky Mountain Health Plans, Summit County’s co-responder program will double from two units to four. This SMART (System-wide Mental Assessment Response) team pairs deputies with clinicians who respond to mental health-related emergency calls. A case manager is then available to help with services in the aftermath. A new mobile crisis unit, staffed only by mental health workers, will also launch, responding to local residents when they call the state’s suicide hotline.

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Leigh Paterson
Lt. Daric Gutzwiller runs the SMART team, which is housed within the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.

“It's very difficult for us as a community to say, ‘Hey, you need to have your crisis between the hours of 9 and 5,’” said Lt. Daric Gutzwiller, who oversees the team. “This expanded coverage will give us 24/7 responses in our community when people are in crisis, where people are in crisis.”

The goal is to connect people with therapeutic services and sometimes basic needs, instead of jail time. The scale of the problem these programs aim to solve is significant: studies show that people in crisis and struggling with mental health routinely intersect with the criminal justice system. 36% of people in Colorado prisons have a mental health need. 70% deal with substance abuse.

“I noticed throughout the years since I’ve been in law enforcement that we’ve been getting more and more mental health calls,” said Steve Maes, a deputy with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office who serves on the SMART team. “It’s not doing any good if someone has mental health problems and then we take them to jail and then they get out and they go right back to doing the same thing.”

Responding to calls in khakis and t-shirts

On a bright July afternoon, Summit County’s co-responders pile into an unmarked silver SUV, headed out on the first call of the late shift. The two deputies, known as technicians, carry guns — SWAT gear is in the trunk. All three, including Missy Barone, the clinician, are in street clothes: khaki pants, dark shirts, baseball hats and sunglasses.

“Just to help break down that barrier a little bit to be more approachable,” Barone said. “Some folks are pretty triggered by law enforcement, uniforms, marked cars based on their own history, life experiences.”

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Leigh Paterson
While the co-responder model can vary significantly by department, Summit County’s SMART team wears street clothes and travels in an unmarked SUV. The deputies do carry weapons.

Deputy Brian Lemick, another SMART team technician, says their approach without uniforms and sirens cuts down on the embarrassment people may feel during a mental health crisis.

“We want to make them as comfortable as they can so we can help them as best we can,” Lemick said. “If they’re worried about four firetrucks and six police cars out in front of their house, that’s what they’re going to worry about, they’re not going to worry about trying to talk to us.”

Today, the team is responding to an unusual call. Deputies from the sheriff’s office are serving an eviction notice to a woman living at her boyfriend’s place in county housing. He had just been arrested on domestic violence charges, which is why he’s losing his apartment. She is pregnant and about to give birth.

“The SMART team is going to support her to make sure she doesn’t go into a crisis. We’ll ask her if she’s suicidal, that will be our concern,” Maes said.

Although the deputies, parked nearby in another vehicle, did not want to evict this woman, they were ultimately directed to serve the notice. Co-responders Steve Maes and Missy Barone joined them, asked about her mental health and connected her to local victim advocates for housing assistance.

As communities push for reform, co-responder programs grow

Across the country, officers respond to high volumes of mental health calls. Hundreds came to Summit County’s SMART team last year through 911 as well as from individuals and other police departments. Team members describe being asked to check on loved ones who hadn’t been answering the phone and to help people with serious mental illnesses get back on their medications.

Co-responder programs like this one are quickly becoming more popular across Colorado. In 2017, legislation authorized Colorado’s Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) to fund eight of these programs. Now, OBH financially supports 26. Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs gives out grants as well.

Challenges do exist; an evaluation published by the Colorado Health Institute last summer pointed to issues such as tension between clinicians and officers, clinician shortages and funding issues.

Some experts and advocates question the need for police involvement in crisis response, especially as communities, like Denver, push for major changes in policing. Last fall, the VERA Institute of Justice put out a report on shifting from police to community crisis response programs. The topic was under discussion at the state Capitol this past legislative session during hearings for a bill to increase funding for co-responder programs.

“Especially in Black and brown communities, especially in communities that experience mental health crises, especially in communities that are unhoused, the very presence of law enforcement and that gun and that badge and the ability to arrest that person, immediately escalates situations that don’t need to be,” said Vinnie Cervantes the director of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR). “And that’s one of the big issues.”

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Leigh Paterson
Last year, six people died by suicide in Summit County, half by firearm. The suicide rate here, like Colorado as a whole, is higher than the national average.

Members of Summit County’s SMART team say the deputies are there to keep the clinicians safe, in case a mental health emergency turns violent. They did not provide data on how often violence or weapons are an issue on these calls.

For some detail on how three departments (none in Colorado) interact with the public, according to a New York Times analysis published last year, officers spent around 4% of their time on calls for service dealing with serious violent crime.

“I think maybe from the outside looking in, you might think, ‘Hey, it's a cop and they don't belong there.’ That's not true at all,” Gutzwiller said. “When we receive calls for people that are suicidal or homicidal, that's who responds... No therapist wants to go into a room with a person that's reportedly suicidal with a gun. That's just the truth.”

So far, outcome data from the sheriff’s office supports the original goal of keeping individuals in crisis out of jail. Last year, the team issued 20 mental health holds and made only one arrest — instead, stabilizing many individuals at the scene and then connecting them with services like therapy and substance abuse treatment.

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