Downtown Denver Shooting

Denver Police Department officers confer in downtown Denver in this 2016 file photo. 

Denver’s police department for the last three years has worked side-by-side with behavioral health clinicians to co-respond to 911 calls and treat people in mental distress more like patients than prisoners — an initiative likely to stick around, at least through 2020.

A $700,000 contract extension between the city’s Department of Public Health and Environment and the Mental Health Center of Denver to keep the co-responder program running through the end of next year advanced through City Council’s safety committee on Wednesday and will be brought forth to the full council in early January.

The co-responder program, formally called the Crisis Intervention Response Unit (CIRU), has been funded by the Crime Prevention and Control Commission since mid-2016. Over that time, the program has grown from having just four licensed clinicians to 15. Twelve of those are co-responders out in the field covering Denver’s six police districts, while the other three work at the Denver Downtown Detention Center.

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The CIRU in 2018 responded to 1,725 incidents that had the potential to escalate, according to program spokesman Jeff Holliday. Of those incidents, less than 70 individuals received a citation or arrest.

In 2018, more than 550 people — nearly a third of whom met criteria for bipolar diagnosis — were provided services from the Mental Health Center of Denver. Roughly 300 individuals were placed on an emergency mental health hold, a 72-hour period in which a person is involuntarily treated and evaluated if mental illness is suspected or is deemed an “imminent danger” to themselves or others.

An additional 70 people were connected to housing and treatment, and 13 were given detox treatment.

“All of the folks involved in this program view this to be instrumental” to diverting people experiencing a behavioral health crisis from going to jail, Holliday said in the Wednesday committee meeting.

“I’ve been with Denver Police for almost 26 years and haven’t seen anything grow as quickly and as impactfully as this unit has,” said Scott Snow, director of DPD’s Crisis Services Division, during a safety committee meeting back in October.

The 2020 contract is $300,000 less than the program’s previous contracts to more accurately reflect actual expenditures due to some costs being offset by Medicaid reimbursements to MHCD.

The program only used $458,000 in 2018, and the projected expense for 2019 is roughly $620,000.

Over the next few years, Denver’s plan is to transition the program under the umbrella of the Department of Public Safety, which will then be responsible for its funding and management. 

The contract is expected to be introduced on the floor of City Council on Jan. 6.

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