Summit County Sheriff’s Office to launch ‘SMART team lite’ to respond to crisis calls without law enforcement
The Summit County Sheriff’s Office is set to bolster its mental health crisis response capabilities in the coming months with the expansion of the SMART team and the facilitation of a new mobile-response program that would act without the presence of law enforcement.
On May 1, the Sheriff’s Office entered into a contract with Rocky Mountain Health Plans, which will provide the office with upward of $300,000 to set up new mobile-response capabilities in the county. The key difference between SMART — Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team — and mobile response is in personnel. While the SMART team responds to calls with a deputy and mental health clinician — always in an unmarked car and plain clothes — a mobile response would have a clinician arrive on scene without law enforcement.
Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons referred to the new program as “SMART team lite” and said the expansion of mental health services through the office would help to ensure individuals in crisis get the help they need while also taking pressure off law enforcement and other community partners who frequently deal with mental health calls.
“It’s fundamentally changing the law enforcement culture up here to be more attuned to mental health issues and to call people that are more trained to handle it,” FitzSimons said. “It’s freeing up cops to handle calls that are designed for law enforcement to handle.”
The Sheriff’s Office launched the county’s first SMART team in January 2020, composed of a deputy, clinician and caseworker who helps individuals who come in contact with the team connect with more robust mental health services, housing and food assistance, and whatever else they might need to get back on track. The office launched its second team in September to help deal with an expanding call load.
Last year, the two teams responded to 331 SMART calls, where they’re requested specifically from dispatch, in addition to hundreds more where they were assisting on a call from another law enforcement agency or community partner.
The program has been successful at deescalating situations and stabilizing individuals without incarceration, according to data provided by the Sheriff’s Office. In 2020, the teams made only one arrest, which FitzSimons said stemmed from an existing warrant and not from the SMART response. FitzSimons said there were zero uses of force involving the SMART team last year.
The program’s expansion should allow for an even higher call volume.
Rocky Mountain Health Plans has been contracted by the state to serve as the regional accountable entity for the Western Slope since 2018 and is required to provide behavioral health services for the area. FitzSimons said negotiations between the organization and the Sheriff’s Office have been ongoing for the past couple of years to fund the mobile-response program, and an agreement was finally reached earlier this month.
As part of the contract, FitzSimons said the Sheriff’s Office is required to offer 24/7 crisis intervention services. With two SMART teams active, the office currently has a team on duty for about half the week. In order to meet the requirement, the office will need to set up two additional teams by Aug. 1. Once the additional staff is brought on — two new deputies, clinicians and case managers — the clinicians will work for both the SMART team and SMART team lite, essentially responding to calls on their own when they can and bringing along a deputy when necessary.
Differentiating between which response would be best for any given call is likely to be tricky at first, FitzSimons said. The main concern is potentially sending a clinician into a dangerous situation without the aid of a deputy.
“As a cop, the call you’re dispatched to is never the call you go to,” FitzSimons said. “It’s the same in the mental health world, and we’ve got to find a comfort level for this community and a comfort level for the clinicians to do this non-law-enforcement response. It’s going to be a work in progress. It’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take the community’s patience, our patience, and we will slowly carve out the difference.”
Mental health calls are screened by the Colorado Crisis Services hotline (844-493-8255), which then provides the appropriate response to local dispatch centers, like the Summit County 911 Center, which in turn will dispatch one of the teams. FitzSimons said his office is working on ways to make sure the correct team is dispatched, whether that means allowing clinicians to screen calls themselves or even setting up a dedicated community hotline directly to the SMART team in the future.
FitzSimons said another problem is the county’s historical reliance on the emergency room at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center for mental health related calls. Before the implementation of the SMART team, he said the emergency room was — and likely still is when a team isn’t on duty — where law enforcement took individuals in crisis. In addition to putting more pressure on the hospital, FitzSimons assailed the practice because it frequently adds additional stressors for the patient, including emergency room and ambulance bills.
FitzSimons said when individuals dealing with the SMART team need a higher-level of mental health care, the team will bypass the emergency room and transport them free of charge to facilities on the Front Range.
The reliance on the hospital as a default also means that community members have learned to pass over the Colorado Crisis Services hotline in favor of dialing 911. Generally, FitzSimons said people should call 911 only when someone is in immediate danger, has a weapon, is violent, has ingested something, is bleeding or is incurring property damage. Colorado Crisis Services should be called if someone is having suicidal thoughts or is in distress.
“The SMART team is going to work hard at reeducating the community on the difference between an emergent crisis and a nonemergent crisis and what those two different responses might look like,” FitzSimons said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s like turning a battleship around in a bathtub. The culture is so ingrained not only in public safety but in the community at large.”
FitzSimons said there would be outreach efforts to community partners who work with the SMART team frequently, like law enforcement agencies, the hospital, Building Hope Summit County and others to ensure they’re calling for the correct response.
Funding the additional mental health resources might also prove difficult. FitzSimons said grant funding from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs for the SMART team was cut by $245,000 this year. He continued to say that it would cost more than $924,000 to set up the two additional teams along with about $767,000 annually to keep them running.
FitzSimons said funding from the Strong Futures initiative and Summit County government will help to fund the expansion this year, but he also plans to bring other stakeholders like the county’s towns and police departments to the table to discuss more long-term funding solutions.
It’s unclear what those conversations will ultimately yield, but law enforcement leaders in the county have said they feel the mental health resources now housed at the Sheriff’s Office are making a difference.
“Over time, policing has changed its tactics, and the SMART team is another tool,” Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor said. “We’ve had really good outcomes with the SMART team and what they’ve done for us. …
“On Sunday, we had a man walk up to our (police department) who was exhibiting extreme paranoia and possibly psychosis. He had a gun in his waistband. He went to grab for the gun. Our officer grabbed him, we handcuffed him, we got him calmed down, and we called the SMART team to have a chat with him. We could have charged him … but the goal was to get him some help. The SMART team facilitated that. … They just have the skill sets. We’re not psychologists. They have the mental health professionals on board, and they can follow with the case managers.”
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