Denver Police Department considers encrypting radio traffic (copy)

The Denver Police Department has teamed up with the Mental Health Center of Denver to co-respond to Denverites experiencing mental health issues who often find themselves trapped in a cycle of arrests and jail sentences.

Programs funded by the state Department of Human Services that deploy law enforcement officers in tandem with behavioral health clinicians have been successful in diverting those facing a behavioral health crisis away from incarceration and toward treatment and services, a report from the state agency has found.

The report, commissioned by the Office of Behavioral Health within DHS and conducted by the Colorado Health Institute, shows so-called “co-responder” programs funded by OBH were successful in each of the four categories measured.

OBH funds 28 co-responder programs that cover more than 80 communities within 24 counties across the state. More than 70 law enforcement agencies participate statewide.

According to the CHI report, the OBH-funded programs successfully reached people who needed behavioral health services, were associated with a reduction in the number of involuntary mental health holds, resulted in new enrollments in behavioral health services and allowed law enforcement officers to spend less time on behavioral health calls and return to patrol duties.

“We are thrilled that our co-responder programs are working as designed and routing more Coloradans to the right care,” said OBH Director Robert Werthwein in a statement. “Not only are teams helping reduce arrest rates and involuntary holds, they’re also allowing officers to return to the field more quickly. We are proud that co-responder programs are part of the solution to improve community safety.”

The report’s conclusions also drew positive feedback from law enforcement officials like Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor, who noted the trust the programs were developing in communities was “immeasurable.”

“To be able to provide an alternative to low-level arrests has reduced the burden on our local courts and provides officers with a sense that they can bring the possibility of a more lasting solution to the lives of some of those suffering mental illnesses,” Pryor said.

The CHI report shows that of the 25,900 calls fielded by OBH-funded co-responder teams between July 2020 and June 2021, 98% avoided arrest while co-responders provided some form of service to on 86% of active calls. Meanwhile, involuntary mental health holds dropped from 8.3% of calls in September 2019 to 3.2% in September 2020 in jurisdictions with OBH-funded programs while officers reported diverting 9.4% of individuals from emergency rooms.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle added the program has been a “big success.”

“Our deputies have come to trust and rely on our co-responders, and that relationship has resulted in a growing program,” he said. “A number of the smaller towns and cities that we partner with in our county-led program see this as so valuable, they are beginning to provide some funding out of their municipal budgets to expand hours and coverage.”

That expansion of hours and coverage has facilitated law enforcement’s return to more typical duties, according to the report. In communities with a OBH-funded co-responder program, the frequency of officers self-reporting they were able to return to patrol duties jumped from 26.4% to 38.4%.

But the report did find areas of improvement, particularly when its comes to data collection. While the report shows roughly 30% of contacts led to a new service enrollment, that figure ranges from as low as 3% to as high as 60%, depending on where the program was located.

“Future evaluation activities should assess opportunities to link co-responder program data to community mental health center enrollment data, as well as private and self-pay data, to understand how many people were connected to behavioral health services, who remained in services, and what services they received after being contacted by a co-responder program,” the report said.

OBH has funded co-responder programs since 2014, though it did not receive state funding until two pieces of legislation, Senate Bills 17-207 and 19-008, cleared the General Assembly. The program has an annual budget of more than $7.3 million and draws its funding from a mix of the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, General Fund and the federal Mental Health Block Grant.