Summit County has a unique program for responding to mental health calls

Summit County has a unique program for responding to mental health calls

After the SMART co-responder program was implemented, their use of force dropped dramatically.

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Since 2021, more than 1,600 police calls in Summit County have been handled by a dedicated mental health crisis response task force.

The calls, which would have traditionally been considered high-risk calls for MPs and officers, have resulted in no arrests, no use of force and only a handful of mental health referrals, which refer people to a higher level of care, such as a community mental health centre. bed or hospital stay.

“Before the teams were set up here in Summit County, it became the default of public safety. I would say get everyone to the ER and drop them off at the back door,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “And we literally broke the back of our emergency room.”

FitzSimons created the SMART System, which stands for System-wide Mental Assessment Response Team, in 2019 after a public spat with the county’s former Community Mental Health Center.

SMART Teams are staffed with a mental health assistant and clinician who respond to mental health calls across the county in plainclothes driving an unmarked car. They work together with a case manager who works with clients after the initial call to connect them with mental health services in the community.

“The goal is to stabilize the person in the moment in the community,” he said. “It immediately starts to de-stigmatize and defuse whatever is going on in the call. What the adjunct brings is the security and stability of that environment to allow the clinician to work effectively.

FitzSimons said the program has allowed hundreds of people in crisis to be stabilized in the community, rather than being hospitalized or imprisoned. He and his team said it could save people thousands of dollars in medical and ambulance bills.

“The default before 2019 was to dump people in the ER…since then we have stabilized literally hundreds of people in the community who otherwise might have been sent to a higher level of care, incurred a ward bill emergency, incurred a community mental bill from the health center, probably lost their apartment, their dog, their car, etc. said FitzSimons.

Once a situation is defused, the person who was in crisis is put in touch with a case manager at the sheriff’s office who directs them to the services available to them in the community.

FitzSimons said the SMART team is pre-booking therapy appointments with local mental health providers every day for anyone in crisis, so they can get help right away rather than waiting weeks. for an appointment.

He said the team reduced the use of force in his agency and other police departments in Summit County. His agency estimates SMART has freed up more than 1,100 hours for other Summit County police and public safety departments since 2022.

“I hear people trying to make it so simple,” FitzSimons said. “As all you have to do is apply for one of the [these co-responder teams]…there are millions of dollars coming from the state. You just need to apply for it, then you build a team. And go ahead… and it’s not that easy.

The sheriff said his team is primarily funded by grants that are difficult for the department to manage.

“I had a grant of $385,000 one year and $40,000 the next year,” FitzSimons said. “So now I have a deficit, and I walk around with my hat in my hand trying to make up the deficit.”

He is working to get staff dedicated to writing grant applications, but he said other small agencies interested in pursuing a similar program might find it difficult.

“What these types of programs need is sustainable funding…where a sheriff or police chief doesn’t have to always scramble for grants,” the sheriff said.

“The Future of Policing”

FitzSimons said he created the team, amid suggestions to remove crisis calls from police workloads because he believes police will never be disentangled from the complex web of mental health crisis calls.

“If law enforcement is going to respond to these calls, why not have the appropriate response?” said FitzSimons. “Why not have this tool in your community, which in our case is the SMART team?”

Recently, a Summit County SMART team was able to negotiate with a man threatening suicide at a hotel in Breckenridge. Within eight hours, a clinician was able to convince the man to give up the gun over the phone and then worked to get him to a safer environment where he could get the help he needed.

Lieutenant Daric Gutzwiller oversees the SMART program. He said the job changed his view of his profession.

“I’ve been with the agency for 18 years and I always tell people that I was really sick of putting people in a box, in a cage,” Gutzwiller said. “The same people over and over and over again.”

“It’s probably one of the most enjoyable and satisfying jobs I’ve ever done in law enforcement,” he said.

Along with SMART’s response to mental health calls in the field, FitzSimons also implemented a similar program at Summit County Jail. There, inmates are offered group therapy, drug-assisted therapy for addiction, EMDR laser therapy, and acupuncture.

A supervisor of that program, called STARR, or Strategies to Avoid Relapse and Recidivism, said it has reduced the number of people returning to prison and helped others stay out of state prisons.

“I believe with a team like this, a team of co-responders, whatever it is for your community…having that as a resource to deploy on any call anytime 24 hours a day…it’s is the future of policing,” FitzSimons said. .

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