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Following Successes, Law Enforcement Say More Personnel Needed For 'Indispensable' Co-Responder Programs

Leigh Paterson
Chris Richardson, in this file photo dated Nov. 6, 2020, is one of the mental health professionals who staffs the STAR van in Denver. He says STAR has stood on the shoulders of co-responder programs. During their six-month pilot, they haven't had to call for police back-up when responding to mental health-related calls.

Following a summer in which protesters marched for changes in policing, law enforcement leaders from across the state touted the successes of co-responder programs during an online forum on mental health and criminal justice last week.

Chief Rick Brandt, head of the Evans Police Department, said that their co-responder program has become “indispensable.” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle described getting emails from officers who wrote that they are “in awe” of their co-responders teams.

“Many of our cops would tell you that we just can’t do without it,” Pelle said.

In dozens of Colorado communities, co-responder teams — generally made up of mental health workers and law enforcement — respond to emergency calls together, helping de-escalate, evaluate and connect people in crisis with services instead of jail time.

Summit County’s co-responder program, known as SMART (Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team), has been in place since last January. The county’s two teams, comprised of a deputy, clinician and case manager, have worked on almost all of the 1,000 mental health-related calls that came in last year. In plainclothes, driving unmarked cars, the clinicians did 152 mental health assessments on-scene. Just 20 people were forced to go to the hospital through an involuntary mental health hold.

“One of the things I'm most proud of is our team has had zero arrests,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “We’ve deferred any criminal activity we’ve come across on these crisis calls, we were able to defer with the help of our district attorney and our courts.”

These co-responder teams are effectively replacing other first responders on some calls. FitzSimons said last year, this freed up over 600 hours of their time.

“It’s a tremendous amount of time that we’re able to put fire, law, EMS back into the field handling the calls they should. Our co-responders were able to stay with these clients in need,” FitzSimons said.

The co-responder model comes in response to a persistent problem: large numbers of mentally ill people ending up in correctional facilities. In state-run prisons, 35% of the inmates have mental health needs. Out of that group, 24% are categorized as having a serious mental illness. Many law enforcement leaders, clinicians and policy-makers agree that jail is not the right place for someone in crisis.

Colorado’s Office of Behavioral Health began funding co-responder programs in 2017 and now supports programs in 23 of Colorado’s 64 counties. So, whether or not you have access to these types of services depends on where you live.

During the recent forum, law enforcement leaders voiced concern about long-term sustainability, as these programs are partially grant-funded. They also talked about the need for more co-responders to cover more hours of the day; the demand is huge.

“I would love to have a co-responder available every time I have a cop available to handle these calls because they occur day and night... we would love to expand the hours, the time that they’re available,” said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle.

An outside evaluation, examining eight of these programs, was published by the Colorado Health Institute (CHI) in June. The report confirmed some of the successes described by law enforcement, primarily that over time, co-responders were able to divert people away from arrests, mental health holds and emergency department transports. CHI also found that these programs have resulted in better interactions and improved relationships between law enforcement and community members.

Challenges do exist. Co-responder programs in Colorado are fairly new and data collection is limited. CHI found that, for a few programs, fewer than one-third of people who interacted with these teams were then enrolled in behavioral health services later on. CHI reported that survey respondents described tension between law enforcement and mental health workers. Some clinicians have had trouble communicating with police; some police have developed negative attitudes towards clinicians, perhaps due to cultural differences between mental health work and policing.

The co-responder model is spreading and even being adapted. In Denver, a van, staffed only by a social worker and paramedic, is now responding to some low-level 911 calls, many of them related to homelessness and self-harm. Starting in June, out of the 748 calls they answered during the six-month pilot, they haven’t had to call for police back up at all.

“We’re showing up with jeans, t-shirt, water and just saying ‘What can we support you with in this moment?" Chris Richardson, one of the STAR van’s staffers explained. “STAR has definitely stood on the shoulders of co-responder programs and been able to utilize that relationship and partnerships to move forward.”

As KUNC's mental health reporter, I seek to create a sense of urgency and understanding around issues related to mental illness, access to care and happiness in Northern Colorado and our mountain communities.
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