Summit County Sheriff’s Office to launch second mental health response team
Program director calls SMART team 'the future of law enforcement'
FRISCO — The Summit County Sheriff’s Office is set to ramp up its SMART team operations next week, expanding from one to two teams in hopes of assisting even more individuals facing mental health crises in the community.
The county’s SMART team — Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team — launched in a limited capacity in January with officials hoping to work out any kinks in the initiative before rolling it out countywide. But team members quickly found themselves responding to a high number of calls throughout the area, and officials are anxious to get more resources up and running as community members cope with the continued effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Post COVID, our mental health calls are skyrocketing,” Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “Our calls for de-escalation are skyrocketing. Our calls for suicides are skyrocketing. Nobody could have foreseen this landscape, but now is the time for expanded coverage.”
The existing SMART team is composed of a deputy, clinician and case manager and works 40 hours a week from Wednesday through Saturday. The second team will begin offering services from Sunday through Wednesday next week.
The expectation is that it’ll be busy.
Since the first team launched at the beginning of January, it has responded to 227 direct calls along with 203 calls to assist other law enforcement agencies, 108 calls to assist non-law enforcement community partners and numerous others. The team also has successfully responded to 10 suicides in progress — wherein someone is actively threatening to kill themselves — and 41 other suicide threats.
Among people contacted, many admitted that substances like alcohol or drugs played a role in the incident (108), and many have used the response team more than once (108).
The Sheriff’s Office estimates that by responding to mental health calls, the team has helped law enforcement and emergency medical personnel return to their other duties, saving 367 hours.
Perhaps most importantly, almost all of the individuals who are coming into contact with the SMART team are able to avoid any sort of arrest or mental health confinement. For individuals who were actively in crisis, the team was able to stabilize 142 in place and refer 81 others to community partners. Only 10 individuals were placed on a mental health hold, and only one person has been arrested.
“Prior to January, law enforcement’s default was to M1 everybody,” FitzSimons said, referring to placing individuals on mental health holds. “That’s 142 people since January that have been stabilized, and provided services to keep them stabilized and able to function as productive members of the community.”
The SMART team’s experience seems to match up with findings from other co-responder units around the state.
The Colorado Office of Behavioral Health recently released an evaluation of the state’s co-responder program, which helps to fund programs in 25 counties, including Summit’s SMART team. The report outlines findings from pilot sites around the state, including in Pitkin, Larimer, El Paso, Weld and Broomfield counties.
At large, co-responder teams appear to be extremely effective at diverting people from formal actions (arrests, mental health holds and emergency department transports), providing more effective ways to support individuals over time, and improving interactions between community members and law enforcement.
Team members in Summit also have lauded the changes allowed by the program.
Contact the SMART team with questions by emailing email@example.com or calling 970-423-8922.
For emergencies, or to request a SMART team, call 911.
“I think responding with a therapist and law enforcement is a good combination,” said Lesley Craig, a clinician and former co-responder out of Larimer County, who will hit the field with the second Summit team once it launches next week. “People who have been distrustful of law enforcement see us as less threatening because we’re not in uniform or anything. It’s good to have that balance. And once we work with them, it increases their trust with law enforcement.
“It shows they’re there to help and not only to deal with criminal situations. Once you explain why you’re there, and you treat the person with respect, you can quickly build that rapport.”
Once a person is stabilized, they also can opt in to further contact with the team’s case manager, who helps the individual down the road with a more holistic approach to connect them with mental health services, housing and food assistance and more.
So far, 118 individuals are in case management. SMART team Case Manager Yirka Platt has followed up with prior contacts 769 times in just the past eight months, and she said most people are happy to have the opportunity for extra help.
“Our clients aren’t just the people who were in crisis but their families and their support system,” Platt said. “… What I really like about this is the case management is so flexible and looks different for every client. One family might need a Building Hope scholar voucher and another might need to connect to a therapist. We understand when a person is in crisis it’s really hard to navigate the system. We want them to count on us to help them make the right connections at the right time, whether that means making calls or setting up appointments.”
Platt said for the few individuals who are sent to a hospital or other mental health facility, the team will constantly follow up to make sure they have a plan in place when they’re released: a ride back to the county, necessary medication and continued support when they’re back in the community.
While the second team will allow the Sheriff’s Office to provide co-responder services every day of the week, FitzSimons said the ultimate goal is to be able to have a team on duty 24/7. But funding is still a question mark.
FitzSimons said it costs between $400,000 and $500,000 to set up each team. The two in place are currently supported through the Office of Behavioral Health, the Department of Local Affairs and Summit County Strong Future funding.
FitzSimons said that as he goes “hat in hand” to potential funding sources to get new teams in the field, he’s also concerned about an upcoming ballot item in Summit County. In November, voters will get their say in whether the county can adjust property tax mill levies to sustain existing tax revenue at risk due to pending changes in the state’s residential assessment rates.
FitzSimons said his concern is that a loss in revenue potentially could mean sacrifices to mental health programs like the SMART team.
“If there’s less money to go around, this is one of the programs that could be impacted,” FitzSimons said. “… There’s no time like the present with what we’re seeing. I’m just going to keep trying. It’s a constant ask.”
But while there are SMART teams out on duty, officials say they’re making a major impact in the community.
“It’s been very successful with the clients we have had,” said Lt. Daric Gutzwiller, who oversees the program. “It’s interesting to see positive changes in people’s lives. There are people that I’ve worked with in law enforcement for years, but we finally have an outlet to get them some resources and help in the community. It’s nice to have a different solution than arresting people. That’s been rewarding for me.
“We set them up with insurance, and it turns into mental health appointments and medication. When you come across that person a month later, you can see an absolutely profound change in where they’re going in life. … I think this program is the future of law enforcement.”
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