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Denver expands program teaming mental health professionals with police officers, first responders

Goal: To keep mental health challenged out of jail
Posted: 11:19 PM, Sep 02, 2016
Updated: 2016-09-03 05:19:09Z

DENVER -- Denver police and sheriff deputies are trained to deal with people who are coping with mental health challenges. They’re taught how to de-escalate situations.

Sometimes they need expert help.

Last April, Denver PD, the Department of Human Service’s Office of Behavioral Health Strategies and the Mental Health Center of Denver teamed up, to better serve the mental and behavioral health needs of those they come into contact with, as first responders.

“Between April and July alone, we saw over 400 calls,” said Julie Smith, the director of marketing and communications for the Department of Human Services. “We were able to connect most of them to treatment that will help them move forward.”

Today, the city announced it is doubling the size of the program, from three to six mental health experts.

“We’re contacted through dispatch and requested,” said Chris Richardson, one of the licensed professionals that respond with police.  “We’re trying to bring help to the front of the situation, instead of once they’re in jail.”

Richardson said the goal of the interaction is to limit future contact with police and to cut down on the numbers of people that end up in jail.

“Bringing in experts and practitioners who focus on mental health and substance abuse, exponentially increases positive outcomes for the citizens that are involved,” said Scott Snow, Denver PD’s director of Crisis Services.

When asked what signs police look for when determining whether they need to call in a mental health expert, Snow said, “Sometimes they’re overt and clear. A suicidal party, or in one instance, a naked guy in the parking lot with a Samurai sword.”

He said, sometimes, it’s a gray area.

“It might involve domestic violence or assaultive behavior,” he added.

When asked if the program is making a difference, Snow replied, “We have clearly seen life-saving [sic].”

He said there were two occasions recently, where someone was talked off a roof.

“It was a suicidal party call,” he said, “and they were ultimately transferred to a hospital.”

Snow told Denver7 that officers have very few options if someone meets the criteria for a mental health hold.

“Sometimes officers get to the scene and the individual doesn’t meet the criteria for a hold, but the officer just doesn’t feel right about leaving. Something is not right.”

He said that’s when the engagement with clinical staff can get people directed to and tied into services.

Snow said the co-responder program is being used to break an old cycle.

“It was lather, rinse, repeat,” he said. “They (the suspect) engaged in conduct, officer contacted, arrested, transported and jailed them.  Charges were then dropped. Now, we have an intervention model that never introduces the jail or criminal justice system as a necessary component or outcome.”

That doesn’t mean that some law breakers won’t be jailed.

Snow said the ultimate goal is service and meeting the needs of a particular population.

Simon Crittle, spokesman for the Denver Sheriff Department, said the other goal is to keep those who simply need help with their mental or behavioral health out of jail.

“We have to do everything we can to first treat and to divert people with mental health issues away from jail,” he said.

“It’s often said that the biggest mental health institution in America is the LA County jail,” Crittle said. “The biggest mental health institution in Colorado is the Denver Sheriff Department.”

Crittle said about 25 percent of the Denver Jail population is being treated for mental health issues.

“That equates to about 500 to 550, at any one time in the Denver Sheriff Department, with mental health issues,” he said.

Richardson said the partnership between police and the mental health professionals has been “incredibly well received.”

He said he thought it would be very awkward.

“They’re the police,” he said. “They’re Batman. They’re going out and solving crime. And you have us being the stereotypical social worker.  We’re going to hug everyone. Tell us something and we’re going to analyze the heck out of you.”

But Richardson said both police and mental health professionals meshed right away.

“We have the same sense of humor. Our kids do the same things. We all realized that core value, that we both want Denver residents to have that wellness, to have that life worth living.”

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