When police officers step out of their vehicles, they may be responding to a drug overdose, domestic violence or public intoxication. The action might be a crime, but what if its root cause is mental health related?
The Durango Police Department wants to change its policing to better address the community’s needs, particularly concerning behavioral health. It just needs to solve a logistical maze first.
In early August, DPD pitched a pilot program for alternative policing to Durango City Council, centered on an innovative partnership with Axis Health System of Southwest Colorado. The goal is to reallocate community resources so, eventually, police can focus on crime prevention and crisis clinicians can address nonviolent or noncriminal incidents. But to get there, new partnerships, new funding and new teams need to become a reality.
“If we can pull the experts in here and provide a higher level of care, maybe they’re going to do a much better job than we can to actually help somebody in the long term,” said Bob Brammer, Durango police chief.
Police officers are often first responders for mental health crises, homelessness, medical calls and more – issues that are more in line with the work of mental health clinicians, social workers and emergency medical technicians.
Mental health-related calls started going to police in the 1950s and 1960s, when inpatient facilities stopped being the go-to placement for people with mental health conditions.
Since then, 10% to 20% of police interactions involve people with mental illness, according to a 2008 academic article in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. About 64% of inmates in local jails had mental health problems, according to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.
But seeing police officers with guns, badges and uniforms might trigger the wrong response for a person in crisis, especially if he or she has had negative experiences with police in the past. People with mental illness end up entering the criminal justice system when they could have been helped by another type of resource.
Resources are a big challenge for the understaffed police department, Brammer said. Responding to such a wide variety of calls requires more training and time for police departments.
“You get the call, and you’re trying to figure out how to provide the most appropriate help for someone,” said Sgt. Tim Dixon with DPD.
Maybe the person’s greatest need is an overnight shelter, but that person cannot go to the shelter for one reason or another. Maybe that person is off his or her medication and needs to go to the hospital. Police are trying to find the best resource for that person, he said.
“Sometimes, in reality, we get kind of stuck, and it’s hard to figure out where to go to help the person,” Dixon said. “We hope, through this program, we’ll have a team that can deal with these situations and know the resources really well.”
The issue of alternative policing is also woven into the wave of protests calling for police reform, spurred by several deaths of Black Americans caused by police, Brammer said.
Now, Durango is gaining momentum on its own program. It just needs to finalize a contract with Axis Health System, which provides mental health services in Southwest Colorado; get city approval and funding; design protocols; recruit staff members; and facilitate a culture shift.
“Because of the events that are occurring right now, it’s giving us the motivation and the incentive to push forward versus just asking the question,” Brammer said.
The modelAxis and DPD are in the beginning stages of creating a pilot program that would combine each agency’s resources into a new, specialized team.
“Both have to come together in certain circumstances to be the most effective response,” said Shelly Burke, Axis CEO. “We aren’t experts in law enforcement, and law enforcement is not experts in behavioral health or primary care, or even sometimes the resources that are available in our community.”
If City Council approves the project, the first stage of the pilot program would put health professionals and police officers in the same car to respond to specific incidents, such as mental health crises, welfare checks, homelessness and substance abuse.
Health professionals would lead the response for noncriminal incidents, and police would be nearby to make the scene safe if necessary.
Such a response would be different from the co-response that already happens between Axis and DPD. The Axis Crisis Care team co-responds on-scene with law enforcement about once or twice a week. But when it does, team members are called off their regular crisis-intervention work. Most of their calls come from a 24/7 hotline run by Axis.
“Co-responses allow for the needs of the individual to be met in a really unique way, where we can address both legal issues and behavioral health issues,” said Molly Rodriguez, an Axis clinical manager who has worked in crisis care.
In the second stage of the program, teams of health professionals would respond to calls on their own, and police could be called in if needed.
The program would be based on existing models, like “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets,” from Eugene, Oregon, and Denver’s “Support Team Assisted Response,” created in 2019.
While Durango is the only city initiating a pilot program, Mancos and Cortez are also interested in partnering with Axis on alternative policing, Burke said.
“You can’t expect one system to have all the training and expertise to be able to respond when people are vulnerable and in crisis,” she said. “That’s what these programs are really designed to try and accommodate.”
Devil’s in the detailsThe alternative policing pilot program is in its earliest stages, and both Axis and Durango police will need to tackle logistical challenges to make it happen.
“It’s not taking what we’re doing and trying to modify it,” Burke said. “This is adding something new and different.”
First, Durango and Axis need to finalize the details of the project and propose a contract to City Council. Axis would need to have a vehicle with computers and radios. The partners would need to design the program and create new internal protocols based on the department’s key challenges, peak response times and types of calls. Axis and DPD would have to work with dispatch centers to change how 911 calls are screened.
“The greatest obstacle we’re going to have to overcome is funding. Funding is what makes the program happen,” Brammer said.
If the city partners with Axis, the health agency will have to recruit and hire staff members with the right skill set and motivation to do the job.
Team members would need different training. Rodriguez said under the pilot program, the crisis clinician would need to be trained in law enforcement protocols, like tactical and safety training, so they aren’t placing officers at risk.
“This work really isn’t for every social worker. It’s not for every therapist, and it might not be for every officer,” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to have to work really hard to make sure we’re putting people where they can be most effective.”
Most similar pilot programs have been done in more urban areas. Rural partnerships are relatively untested. Burke said Durango could build on that history if the city’s program can gain traction.
“Our community is different. We’re geographically isolated. We have fewer resources,” she said. “We always have to be more creative than the average person in a city.”
The right time?For decades, communities have known they needed better systems for responding to nonviolent incidents, particularly when it comes to mental health.
“There’s a piece of this puzzle that’s missing, and that’s health care, social safety net and resource connection,” Burke said.
Burke and Brammer said despite years of slow action, this moment is the right time for investing in alternative policing.
The coronavirus pandemic has increased instances of substance abuse and depression. Suicide and overdose rates have increased, Brammer said. Social unrest has increased the city’s incentive to act.
The chaos of the coronavirus pandemic has made it clear that 911 response can’t cover everything that is coming through the call system, Burke said. People see the need for a change. Law enforcement agencies are trying similar programs and seeing success. With recognition and demonstrated success, Burke believes the funding will follow.
“This is a process to get people connected quicker to resources that can make a difference, but it’s not a magic wand that’s going to solve all of the challenges,” she said. “It’s one more piece of the puzzle for a healthier more vibrant community.”