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State Report Indicates Mental Health, Police Agency Response Programs Are Helping Those In Crisis; Also Spotlights Gaps

In 2018, the Montrose and Delta law enforcement agencies launched their first co-responder program, which sent trained Center for Mental Health clinicians to calls with a mental health nexus. The thinking behind a co-responder program is that it will help those in crisis, as well as decrease the amount of time sworn officers spend on such calls and allow them to get back on patrol.

Now, the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health —which provides funding to the local program and more than 20 others in the state — has its first round of data to help answer the question: Do they work?

The OBH’s recently released report, “The Value of Partnership: How Colorado’s Co-Responder Programs Enhance Access to Behavioral Health Care,” found that overall, nearly 30% of contacts through co-responder programs led the subjects of those contacts to enroll in behavioral health services.

The research also showed more than 90% of calls resulted in at least some sort of service being rendered on-scene, as well as a reduction in involuntary mental health holds and emergency department visits.

Self-reports from officers also showed they were able to return to patrol duties faster if a co-responder assisted mental health calls. Further, the OBH report found an overall reduction in
unnecessary law enforcement involvement for one in every three calls.

“I don’t believe someone in crisis, as long as they don’t pose a public safety risk, should be in the back of a police car,” Montrose Police Chief Blaine Hall said on Monday, Oct. 19.

The Montrose Police Department and Montrose County Sheriff’s Office share a co-responder. The Delta Police Department and the Delta County Sheriff’s Office share another responder. The program has been retooled since its 2018 inception and now has three clinicians, plus a dedicated, specially equipped vehicle for them to use, purchased with a Department of Local Affairs grant.

“I think we have better outcomes when we don’t criminalize mental health. That’s why the Montrose Police Department thinks this partnership is so important and we’ve tried to invest our own resources into the program by obtaining a grant for a vehicle for the co-responder, so we can keep individuals in crisis out of the backseat of a patrol car,” Hall added.

Bridging the gap

The Colorado Health Institute evaluated OBH-funded co-responder programs for the report, using submitted data collected by four pilot sites between September 2019 and September 2020.

The remaining 18 programs, including Montrose’s, began reporting individual-level data in July 2020, which CHI analyzed. The report looked a data supplied between that July and September, which entailed 5,161 contacts; the figure includes 3,473 active calls for individuals, the state said. (Montrose’s data for July — September 2020 were missing because of program restructuring and that is reflected in the report’s findings. Some of the data gaps are significant.)

Ninety-three percent of active calls resulted in some sort of service rendered on-scene, noted Emily Richardson, co-responder program manager for the Colorado Department of Human Services. She was also struck by how the programs helped officers return to patrol duties.

“It’s really helpful to get law enforcement back out doing what they need to do and not having to complicate calls any further,” she said.

Officers still respond to the calls; it’s just that because of co-responder availability, they do not have to stay with the patient contact all the way through immediate aftercare, such as when the patient is taken to a medical facility.

“The goal is it will save officers time. Because as it was in the past, officers were sitting with that patient in the hospital and that’s really what that co-responder is meant to do,” Hall said.

“That’s why we needed that person to have their own vehicle, so that the officer could leave and handle other calls.”

According to the data for Montrose, 7.3% of calls were resolved on-scene and 21.6% of contacts resulted in an enrollment in mental health services of some nature. About 12% were resolved through community-based settings and 7.3% through medical-based settings. The jail rate was 0, per the report, which notes a 73.2% rate for “missing or unknown data,” again, due to local program restructuring at the time the state collected data.

The percentage of active response calls resulting in an officer being able to return to patrol was 38.5%.

“Co-responder programs not only help clients or individuals in a community who are experiencing behavioral health issues. I think it is always a value to law enforcement to help take some things off of their plate to make sure people are getting the help they need,” said Richardson.

Although officers do have some behavioral health training, it is not reasonable to expect them to have the same knowledge as a trained counselor, she said.

“It fills a gap that is currently in our systems, where there may be individuals who haven’t had the opportunity to get connected to services, or who are hard to engage in services. I think it really helps fill that gap.”

The unknowns

Because co-responder programs are relatively new, it was not possible during the first go-round to collect all data that would have fully measured effectiveness. An obvious challenge: Law enforcement agencies cannot necessarily predict whether a call for service could benefit from a co-responder. Further, noted Hall, it is not always safe to deploy someone who is not trained in law enforcement.

“It is always our intent to deploy mental health resources above and beyond what our police officers are trained in. In cases where someone is in crisis, however, there are always those times when someone has armed themselves, often times with a firearm, which simply doesn’t make it feasible to send in a mental health co-responder,” the chief said.

“That situation could become dramatically worse. Our first goal is to stabilize the scene and make it as safe as we can. We can never make a scene perfectly safe, but we can make it as safe as we can in hopes to deploy that co-responder as soon as we can.”

Sometimes, situations unfold so quickly that there simply is not time to make a scene safe for the clinician. The response becomes geared toward ensuring public safety.

The co-responder program cannot prevent all possible tragedies involving mental health crises, Hall said.

“But having a co-responder employed and present is much better than not having the program at all. I know for a fact that our co-responder program has saved lives. Not only does it help stabilize the immediate situation, but it also creates a toehold into the Center for Mental Health for that individual to receive further services,” he said.

“It’s not always black and white,” Richardson said of situations involving behavioral health.

“It’s certainly frustrating for the community to know there is a resource but not understand why they are not getting it.”

Overall, the report’s evaluations were good, she said, reiterating the co-responder programs are fairly new.

“ … I think it’s encouraging. The report did also note that we’re continuing working through data collection and refining the data collection piece.”

The Office of Behavioral Health’s report recommends a developing a reporting mechanism that could be used to objectively determine the number of calls that could benefit from a co-responder.

“We are continuing working with programs to try to identify within the law enforcement agencies what their behavioral health calls for service are so we at least have a baseline,” said Richardson.

“That doesn’t necessarily help for, in the moment, (knowing) whether they are going to a behavioral health call, but it does speak to what the need is in a community. Our ultimate hope is to better understand what the needs are so we can make sure programs are adequately staffed and staffed at the right times.”

The Montrose co-responder program last year increased services, providing them to just over 200 people, the Center for Mental Health’s regional director Laura Byard told Montrose City Council during an Oct. 19 work session. Byard is also the Center’s co-responder program supervisor.

The state kicked in funding to “right size” Montrose based on use and that allowed a third clinician to be added to the roster, she said, responding to Councilor Anthony Russo.

“With only one person last year, we were only able to provide support 11 a.m. — 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. With this (additional funding), we will be able to extend those hours and provide support onsite more often than we were able to last year. It still won’t be 24-hour support because we have three people across two counties, but we will continue to provide support, even when we’re not on shift, when those individuals return to shift,” she said.

The Center’s mobile crisis response unit is on-call for urgent mental health calls (even those not involving law enforcement), especially for those who cannot access the Center’s crisis walk-in center. Both the mobile response unit and the walk-in center are available to police when a co-responder is not on shift, Byard said.

“Most importantly, we want people to call for help and know that when they do call, they’ve got trained officers that get crisis intervention training and community mental health center co-responder support as well,” she said.

“The job is a hard one,” Hall told the Montrose Daily Press.

“It’s been tough to find continuity in the position because it takes a special person to fill that role. It’s definitely a person who’s a clinician, but they’re not seeing patients in the four corners of their office,” he said. “They’re seeing patients or potential future patients in their worst moments, in crisis. We definitely had some challenges in finding continuity in the position.”

Hall expressed confidence in the co-responders and the Center. “I really applaud the Center for Mental Health for trying to fill that position so quickly, however, it’s a position that can’t be filled with just anyone. Those take time,” he also said.

City councilors on Oct. 19 praised the program.

“This is a critical service we’re providing to our constituency and our citizens,” Mayor Pro-tem Dave Frank said. “…The amount of people (served), they don’t need to be arrested. They need help.”

Montrose Daily Press
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.
Montrose Daily Press | October 22, 2021
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