Demonstrators for the Black Lives Matter movement gather at the steps of the Denver City and County Building on June 29, 2020.

The Denver City Council Safety Committee provided an update on its progress and future plans regarding mental health in Denver jails, and youth violence prevention, at its Wednesday meeting.

Dr. Nikki Johnson, chief of mental health services for the Denver Sheriff’s Department, said she is using her newly created position to create a competency restoration program, crisis response team and "entry to exit" mental health treatment.

“The Denver Sheriff Department is the second largest psychiatric provider in the state of Colorado,” Johnson said. “Knowing that we have a high population of individuals with serious mental illness, it’s so important for us to be able to provide support.”

The competency restoration program is a pilot program beginning in late April or early May, providing restoration services to individuals who are in custody awaiting a competency evaluation, or who have been ordered to attend restoration treatment.

In recent years, there's been a significant increase in criminal suspects declared to be incompetent to proceed to trial in Colorado, increasing from 85 in 2001 to 733 in 2018.

In partnership with Denver Health and the Office of Behavioral Health, the program will offer restoration services to 12 patients to ensure they don’t remain in custody longer than needed. If successful, the pilot will seek state funding to expand operations.

The crisis response team will consist of a staff of 16 civilian mental health professionals and one licensed supervisor, on post 24/7 to de-escalate situations involving seriously mentally ill inmates without using any type of force.

Of the Denver Sheriff’s Department population, 61% have past or current mental health issues, 37% are on psychotropic medications and 22% are on antipsychotic medications.

The team will work with and in support of deputies in responding to crises beginning at the Denver Detention Center and later expanding to the Denver County Jail. A multi-disciplinary task force is currently outlining next steps to implement the team.

Finally, "entry to exit" mental health treatment will consist of an audit of all mental health services provided by the Denver Sheriff’s Department to ensure best practices are followed.

“It's important that we are ensuring the individuals that come into our custody are provided with culturally competent programming and returned to the community better than when they came into the facility,” Johnson said.

Johnson said all mental health services will be evaluated based on the dual mindset of leading with humanity and providing best services rather than punishment.

This will be a continuous and ongoing effort at both jails. Current efforts being developed include providing housing and culturally competent programming for released inmates with serious mental illness.

“It sounds like you have a large job ahead of you, and I want to congratulate you for taking this step of creating this new position,” Councilman Paul Kashmann said in the meeting. “I think it bodes well for the clients in the jail and the community at large.”

In addition, the city has also established the new position of youth violence prevention coordinator, to which Jonathan McMillan has been appointed.

In the position, McMillan will be leading Denver’s efforts to prevent youth violence, as well as the Youth Violence Prevention Action Table, first established in 2019.

McMillan said he aims to develop a comprehensive approach to youth violence, focused on healthy family development, quality early education, strengthening youth skills, protective community environments, harm intervention and connecting youth to caring adults.

“Father Boyle says in L.A., nothing stops a bullet better than a job,” McMillan said. “I would say, nothing stops a bullet better than hope and opportunity.”

So far, the effort has designated the Office of Children’s Affairs to implement the plan and evaluate emerging needs, expand youth pop-up zones to increase events in communities where youth violence is common, and apply an equity lens to all strategies.

In the coming weeks, McMillan will also release funding for mini-grants and youth pop-up zones, finish the rehabilitation of the youth empowerment center in Valverde, and work with Aurora as the city begins its own youth violence prevention meetings.

“I’m really excited about this regional approach,” McMillan said. “Violence doesn’t recognize nor respect city boundaries. What happens in Aurora, Lakewood, Commerce City, Thornton and all of our sister cities absolutely has an impact in Denver.”

In the coming months, Denver will host the annual Cities United convention, pursue grant opportunities from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and support multiple community-led youth violence prevention activities in northeast and southwest Denver.

McMillan said he is also working on changing the name of the youth violence prevention initiative and events to something more asset-based, an idea Council President Stacie Gilmore supported during the meeting.

“Living in Montbello, a lot of times the terminology that is used makes it sound like we live in an unsafe community and that cannot be farther from the truth,” Gilmore said.

During the meeting, council members also encouraged McMillan to look into strategies for addressing intersectional youth violence regarding Latina girls and bridging the gap between Denver neighborhoods so that youth will utilize resources around the city.

Council members had a moment of silence in honor of the dozens of young people lost to youth violence in Denver in the past few years, “and for those who we will unfortunately lose in the future until we get a better handle on this situation,” Kashmann said.

Next, McMillan will coordinate the program funding with the 2022 budget requests and meet with City Council member and committees to determine needs and concerns going forward.