A second deputy and UCHealth clinician will join the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office’s mental health unit this year, doubling the agency’s bandwidth to respond to calls involving those struggling with mental health crises.
By mid-February, the second team will begin responding alongside the existing two-person team to help quell the unabated mental health emergencies across the county’s sprawling 2,100 square miles, said Carey Boelter, behavioral health manager for the Sheriff’s Office.
A case manager will also join the unit to prioritize follow-up calls, with the intent to connect callers with services they need and drive down future 911 calls.
The expansion comes 1½ years after the launch of the Behavioral Health Connect Unit (BHCON), which was designed to divert people into mental health care rather than jail. In its first year, the unit responded to 573 calls and provided services to 450 people, making follow-up checks on 212, recent data from the Sheriff’s Office shows.
The second unit will help the overburdened first team with the upwards of 200 calls the Sheriff’s Office receives each month relating to mental health, Boelter said. On average, the single unit could respond to about only 50 to 60 of those calls, she said.
“They can’t breathe when they’re out there,” she said. “They’re constantly in need and they’re needed on their days off.”
The additional unit will operate Wednesday through Saturday, with both teams overlapping Wednesdays when the Sheriff’s Office typically receives the highest number of calls.
On Sundays, when both teams are off, an officer with crisis intervention training would respond to mental health calls, if available, Boelter said. If not, a regular patrol deputy will respond to the call.
“But they know how to respond. We do enough training around mental health,” Boelter said. “We’re trying to equip everybody with some level of skill to deal with (mental health) because it almost feels like almost every call has some sort of component to mental health or substance abuse.”
Part of the mission is to divert El Paso County residents from the criminal justice system and get them the help they need, she said.
Between July 1 and Sept. 30, deputies made only one arrest, resulting in new charges, when responding to 153 calls relating to mental health, Boelter said.
About half of those callers were treated on scene, allowing them to stay in their home as opposed to an emergency room, drastically reducing their costs, she said.
The unit’s growth marks a significant step forward in addressing the need for increased access mental health care in a state where systemwide deficits prevent many residents from receiving resources they need.
“Here in El Paso County, our mental health resources are horrible. I think we have the worst mental health systems in the nation, to be honest,” said Sgt. John Hammond, who was assigned to the unit in July 2018. “To be able to go through that without going through a crisis is almost impossible.”
Another goal is help callers connect with mental health services across the county, which would allow first responders to focus on high priority fire and medical calls, Hammond said.
“Eventually over time, that reliance on 911 goes away and we see better care for the individuals because we are bringing in mental health professionals instead of police officers who are putting on that mental health cap,” he said.
The BHCON unit began operating in July 2018 on a five-year grant from the Colorado Department of Human Services. To make more money available for a second team, the Sheriff’s Office will now pay for the deputies’ salaries, Boelter said. The grant funds will pay for the clinicians’ wages, mental health training for officers and professional development for the mental health teams.
With two teams, the Sheriff’s Office hopes to keep one on the road responding to calls while the other team primarily helps provide mental health training and de-escalation methods with community partners who often work with those with mental health issues.
While the addition is a step in the right direction, two teams still isn’t enough, Boelter said.
Boelter points to Houston as a role model in terms of efficient and safe mental health response tactics. The city’s Police Department touts the country’s largest crisis intervention training program.
According to the department’s website, all of its roughly 3,500 sworn officers are required to receive the 40-hours crisis intervention training — a classroom-based course some refer to as the “gold standard” in training police to find peaceful solutions.
Each year after they receive training, all officers are required to take an eight-hour “refresher” course on mental health.
The Houston department also has a program, much like BHCON, that pairs a licensed mental health professional with a crisis-intervention-trained officer. Houston, however, has 12 full-time units and, when available, they also respond to SWAT calls, unlike El Paso County’s BHCON unit.
That response team was launched in 2011 after the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department joined forces to tackle mental health crises across the region.
In Colorado, the state doesn’t require officers to receive the training and currently only 106 of the Sheriff’s Office’s sworn 524 employees have received it, said Jackie Kirby, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. Eight are in the training class now.
Insufficient funds are one obstacle, Boelter said.
The 40-hour crisis intervention training would take EPSO employees off from their typical patrol duties or from the jail, resulting in overtime for those who fill their spots, she said.
At this point, funding can’t allow for more than three training classes a year, Boelter said. A fourth class was held this year through a grant from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Foundation.
The Sheriff’s Office requires all incoming sworn and civilian employees to receive an eight-hour training in first aid, covering the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to respond when on duty.
The first aid training is more of an introductory class, whereas CIT-training is “like a master’s program in counseling, condensed into a week,” Boelter said.
Unlike in cities, mental health care services aren’t readily accessible to some residents living in rural and unincorporated areas of the county.
“We may drive 40 minutes to respond to somebody and the services are in town. So if we bring them into town, they’re away from their family and they may or may not have transportation back,” she said.
Continued care is even harder, she said.
“That’s where some of the unique barriers come in,” she said. “We can get them somewhere, but then how do we help sustain their dreams?”
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