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.

It may seem like an unlikely duo, but the odds of seeing a social worker riding shotgun in the patrol car of a Denver police officer are growing.

Since 2016, the Denver Police Department has worked side-by-side with behavioral health clinicians through its Crisis Intervention Response Unit to co-respond to calls that involve a person experiencing mental distress and treat them more like a patient rather than a prisoner.

The police department’s co-responder program with the Mental Health Center of Denver started as a pilot about three and a half years ago. In 2018, the program was awarded more than $1 million in funding from the state Department of Health Care Policy & Finance after preliminary data was reviewed and it was determined that the program had a positive financial impact on the criminal justice system.

The additional funding meant that the co-responder program could not only double its service capacity, but also expand its scope of collaborate outreach and interventions.

“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 Denver City Council safety committee meeting Wednesday.

The program started with four licensed clinicians but has now grown to 15, Snow said. The partnership has a presence in the downtown detention center and operates in all six police districts for 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“One of the most impressive things … is the integration,” Snow said, because law enforcement was suspicious at first of the change.

When officers were told a social worker would be riding in the car with them, Snow said he’d never seen people avert eye contact so quickly.

“Every cop just thought, ‘There’s just no way. We’re not riding with social workers,’” Snow said.

“It was a really fun first six weeks of just feeling that kind of awkward, ‘Who’s going to take me on my first date?’ kind of thing,” joked Chris Richardson with Mental Health Center of Denver, who was one of the first four licensed clinicians in the program.

That skepticism has transformed into keenness, Richardson said, and many cops during morning roll call now hope they’ll be one of the lucky ones picked to pair up with a social worker.  

That shift in willingness is reflective of the noticeable benefits from the program.

Co-responders made contact in 2018 with 1,725 individuals, nearly 75% of whom were not experiencing homelessness at the time. Of those people, only 3% percent were arrested and 2% were issued a ticket.

About a quarter of those contacted by clinicians were connected to the Mental Health Center of Denver, where they were given health support and recovery-based services. But most people don’t need the center’s services, Snow said, either because they can be treated on-scene or are already participating in a mental health program.

City Councilwoman At-Large Robin Kniech asked about the connection between the clinical co-responder program and Denver Public Schools, referring to a safety committee meeting last week where she learned from DPS that police officers in full uniform were often responding to suicidal students.

She was concerned the approach was “not a best practice” for vulnerable teens and suggested to DPS in the previous safety committee meeting “de-emphasizing a unformed approach.”

Although clinicians have worked inside schools, Richardson said, the process isn’t formalized. Kniech wondered if that may be a “missed opportunity” and asked for Richardson and Snow to follow up with DPS Department of Safety Chief Michael Eaton to improve that response.

Snow said the goal of the program is to keep growing and continue to support behavioral health outcomes across the city.

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