ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. — In just three weeks, Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office co-responders, also known as licensed mental health clinicians, responded to 118 calls of service with deputies involving a mental health situation.
Three co-responders were sworn in at the end of May and became county employees after the sheriff’s office terminated their contract with a community mental health agency. Two more clinicians are in the hiring process.
In 2019, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office launched the Behavioral Health Response Program, which pairs deputies with co-responders when a call involves a person with mental illness or someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
The goal of the co-responders is to help deescalate situations and connect the person in distress with vital resources.
Under the community health agency contract, co-responders rode with deputies to the scene, but now under the management of the sheriff’s office, clinicians have access to two unmarked cars, giving them more freedom to respond to various calls across the county. The vehicles are also equipped with a cage to transport people to the hospital or other approved locations.
Kaleb Kittrell began working as a co-responder with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office under contract in July 2020 and became a county employee in May 2021. The vehicle he drives is equipped with a dispatch radio to monitor 911 calls and a laptop. Dispatch will flag calls for clinicians, but Kittrell says he also assesses the calls himself and listens for keywords and phrases like “erratic behavior” and “rambling speech” to decide if it’s a call he can respond to and be of assistance.
“We are in civilian clothes, we are unarmed, so sometimes that allows us to meet somebody in a crisis on a ground level and decrease maybe the feelings of threat and intimidation,” Kittrell said.
If officers determine that the person in crisis does not pose a threat and has not committed a crime, the clinician will take over the case, allowing the responding deputy to get back on the streets.
In 2020, between one and three co-responders responded to 1,600 calls involving a person experiencing a mental health episode. Data shows that clinicians saved deputies 230 hours.
Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Brett Cohn has worked calls with the help of clinicians since 2019. He says they make a big impact on the field.
“They can offer resources that law enforcement cannot,” Cohn said. They are clinicians, they have additional training.”
He says for some people, an officer in uniform can be viewed as intimidating or threatening.
“They see our uniforms and instantly they don’t want to talk to us, they don’t want to deal with us,” Cohn said.
Julie Jacobs, the Behavioral Health Response Program manager, says mental health specialists are also responding to verbal disputes, domestic violence, trespassing and shoplifting calls.
Jacobs says the program's primary goal is to save deputy time, minimize unnecessary arrests and help connect people with vital resources.
Cohn recalls two opioid addicts sitting in a car outside a store on a snowy day last year. He says someone called in to report the two people. Cohn says thanks to the co-responder the department was able to help the two addicts, something he feels he wouldn’t have been able to do without their help.
“We got them in a hotel, we got them off the street, got them out of the freezing cold and did everything in our power to help them get rehabilitation,” Cohn said.
Jacobs expects the number of calls co-responders respond to will increase in 2021 when they get all five clinicians on board. She hopes to double the crisis intervention team in the future.