Summit County Sheriff’s Office looks to expand SMART team, bolster mental health response

Summit County's SMART team, from left: Lt. Daric Gutzwiller, clinician Andrew Brottman, case manager Yirka Platt and technician Ashley Thomas.
Courtesy Summit County Sheriff’s Office

KEYSTONE — The Summit County Sheriff’s Office is looking to expand its mental health response team to help address growing calls for assistance in the months since its adoption in the area.

The SMART team — otherwise known as a Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team — began operating in January with a single group consisting of a deputy, behavioral health specialist and a case manager. The team responds to a number of mental health related cases — including suicide threats, welfare checks and more — to try to stabilize the person involved and de-escalate the situation.

The group has seen a steady increase in cases over the past few months.

“We did a soft launch in January and put together some training modules,” Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “We’ve been test driving within the Sheriff’s Office primarily, just trying to work out all the bugs. And they have been overwhelmingly busy.”

In February, the team responded to three “SMART calls,” a broad term that serves as an umbrella for cases in which the team is assisting another police jurisdiction outside of the Sheriff’s Office. That number rose to 12 in March and to 30 in May.

Data provided by the Sheriff’s Office also outlines more specific calls for the team, showing sporadic growth over the past couple of months in things like welfare checks and general mental-health related calls.

Another indicator of growing caseload is the “cleared unit time,” which calculates how much time the team is helping to free up for other law enforcement and emergency service agencies. In February, the team cleared about 11 hours, which grew to more than 40 in May.

Of note, the office also records numbers on things like case management meetings — face-to-face interactions with case managers to help facilitate mental health care — and follow-up and outreach attempts after the initial call. Lt. Daric Gutzwiller, who oversees the unit for the Sheriff’s Office, said a number of outreach attempts involve proactively reaching out to members of the public who frequently deal with law enforcement due to mental health reasons.

The number of total outreach attempts went from 70 in February to 100 in May but saw a small dip in March and April.

The data also dives into the frequency of actions taken by the team on calls. Part of the intent of the program is to eschew from more traditional law enforcement measures like jailing or hospitalizing individuals in mental health crisis. So far, the team has recorded zero arrests and six mental health holds. The team has issued two criminal diversions, essentially pursuing other means aside from prosecution.

Instead, the team has relied heavily on efforts to stabilize individuals in their homes, or wherever they’re responding, and refer them to community partners like Building Hope Summit County.

“It’s really ramped up from January until now,” Gutzwiller said. “But I think it’s just going to continue to grow. Mental health calls are more involved, and through case management, we work with people for weeks or months after the event. … It’s something that’s had a lot of benefit for our community.”

FitzSimons said plans to expand were in place in February, but the arrival of the novel coronavirus put a hold on hiring efforts. Earlier this week, the county revamped efforts to put a second team on duty and is actively recruiting a new mental health clinician and case manager. A deputy is already trained for the job.

Another team in the field would serve to help carry the load, but it would also allow for more comprehensive responses throughout the county. Currently, the team only operates from Wednesday through Saturday.

“What we want, obviously, is a team for the other side of the week, with the ultimate goal of getting to 24/7,” FitzSimons said. Mental health calls while the team is off duty are handled with either a referral going to the team to follow up on or taking an individual to the emergency room in more severe cases.

FitzSimons said it would take four teams to get the job done full time. But adding two more would be difficult given budgetary constraints. The current team and presumptive new hires are funded through a combination of grants from the Colorado Office of Local Affairs, the Colorado Department of Human Service’s Office of Behavioral Health and Summit County 1A Strong Futures money.

FitzSimons estimated it costs upward of $350,000 per team for personnel, training and more. But funding from state partners is up in the air due to potential budget cuts.

“In regards to the state budget, we’re just waiting to hear on our co-responder grants as well as our jail-based behavioral health service grant at the jail,” FitzSimons said. “They could all be impacted by the upcoming budget cuts. It just depends on how it affects mental health.”

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