Summit County officials push for expansion of mental health grant program
Bipartisan lawmakers are hoping to push a bill through the Colorado House of Representatives that would expand the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ Peace Officer Mental Health Grant program, which helps to fund initiatives like Summit County’s SMART team.
After facing some opposition from community members, bill sponsors Rep. Julie McCluskie, of Dillon, and Rep. Hugh McKean were able to work with concerned stakeholders to add amendments that ultimately allowed the bill to pass through the House Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services Committee. McCluskie said getting over the first hurdle gave her confidence the bill would stand a good chance of eventually becoming law.
“The fact that we were able to bring the bill out of committee with a unanimous vote, all Republicans and Democrats on board, is significant,” McCluskie said. “We had a great deal of passionate testimony on both sides of what’s working in communities and what’s not. I think we were able to glean from that the right information to refine the language in our bill. … I feel like we’ve done the heavy work, and from here on out, we just have to usher it through the system to make sure it gets across the finish line.”
The department’s grant program currently allocates about $2 million annually to law enforcement agencies for mental health services. Some communities are already using the funds to implement co-responder teams, which provide on-scene support from behavioral health specialists for officers interacting with people who have mental health disorders. Others are using the funds for mental health support directed at officers themselves, such as counseling, peer-support programs, education on job-related mental trauma, and implementing supports for officers involved in shootings or fatal use of force.
McCluskie said the grant program awarded about $1.3 million to communities and entities across the state in 2018, and the program maxed out its grant issuances in 2019. This year, McCluskie said the program already has received about $6 million in grant requests, signaling that interest from around the state is on the rise.
The bill wouldn’t allocate more funds to the grant program, though McCluskie did note a desire to see more money designated to the concept so more communities could participate. Instead, the bill would expand the allowable uses of the funds to include on-scene responses for social service needs in addition to mental health, meaning responders could direct individuals toward help with housing, food insecurity and more. The bill also would allow public health agencies, behavioral health agencies and community-based social services providers to apply for funding in partnership with public safety agencies.
“I think based on what we have seen — not only in the state but nationally — the trend, the need, the desire is to move forward and help our law enforcement system evolve,” McCluskie said, speaking in front of the House Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services Committee on March 2. “Evolve from a model of straight policing to a model that really incorporates more compassionate, holistic and healthy response to individuals in need.”
Critics of the bill said they agree with the general sentiment that there needs to be better mechanisms in place for responding to individuals in crisis. But many raised concerns that funneling the money through law enforcement agencies might be a step in the wrong direction and that funds should be opened up directly for community-based response programs like Denver’s STAR van, or Support Team Assisted Response, which sends an emergency medical technician and mental health provider to lower-risk behavioral health calls without a police presence.
“Even in a community-based co-responder model, it’s police-centric,” said Allison Hiltz, an at-large council member for Aurora who spoke on her own behalf at the hearing. “It’s exacerbated by the fact that these programs are generally living in police departments, which inherently makes them a police program and not a community-based one. Lastly, I’m still not sure why in the wake of S.B. 217, and in the midst of a national reckoning and during a pandemic when mental health care is sorely needed, why we’re incentivizing placing power back into the hands of police as the default with regards to responding to mental health needs when we have a proven alternative.”
McCluskie noted that the reason funds are tied to law enforcement and other public safety agencies is because calls for assistance often come through 911 dispatch centers. However, she continued to say that when calls come to a 911 center, dispatchers are allowed to send non-law enforcement responses.
“We do need that partnership piece because they’re 911 phone calls,” McCluskie said.
The bill also has a large pool of supporters from around the state, including in Summit County.
Summit County already has its own co-responder model called SMART, or Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team. Unlike some other programs, the SMART team operates entirely under the purview of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and staffs its own dedicated deputies, clinicians and case managers. The team arrives to calls in a plain car and plain clothes, and any sort of confinements or arrests as a result of being called are exceedingly rare.
Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons testified at the hearing and lauded the program’s success. He said the SMART team has become a fixture in the county along with other community initiatives like Building Hope Summit County and the Strong Future Fund, which provides funding for mental health programs.
“Implementation of the SMART program has fundamentally changed the culture of policing in Summit County,” FitzSimons said. “Public safety community partners have come to rely on the SMART program when interacting with individuals experiencing behavioral and/or mental health crisis. I’m confident this type of strategy, if deployed widely, will work toward building trust between communities and law enforcement partners as it has done in Summit County.”
The bill was initially laid over to give the sponsors time to address community concerns. McCluskie and McKean returned to the committee Friday, March 5, and the bill passed in a unanimous 12-0 vote. The bill now will head to the House Appropriations Committee.
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