Support-focused programs at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office aim to reduce mental health illness, recidivism
For over two years now, the Summit County Sheriff’s Department has attempted to craft a novel police force. One that operates in the space where mental health struggles and and law enforcement collide.
The department’s Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team program, locally called SMART, has handled thousands of calls since its creation in 2020, and the jail-based Strategies to Avoid Relapse and Recidivism, or STARR, program has similarly handled hundreds of cases.
Members of the response team said it has been beneficial to help treat underlying behavioral and mental health issues caused by abusive childhoods, neglect and other experiences that result in post-traumatic stress disorder.
The mental health program responded to 621 calls and 390 assists in 2021 according to data tracked by the Sheriff’s Department. An assist occurs when response team members aid another law enforcement agency or community partner. The 1,011 responses work out to almost three per day, although calls are never predictable.
“Crisis is obviously an unpredictable topic in itself,” clinician Andrew Bottman said. “So some days, we might come in and be just call to call to call, nonstop. Other days, we might have just three to four calls. It’s really just how the community is doing,”
Despite the high volume, zero calls resulted in arrest or use of force, and nine calls resulted in criminal diversions, meaning the individual was treated and diverted from the criminal act.
In 2020, the team responded to 331 calls and over a hundred assists, meaning the number of responses more than doubled from 2020 to 2021. In accordance, the mental health response program moved from a single team of three — a clinician, deputy and case manager — to 12 employees across four response teams.
While the data may seem alarming, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said part of the jump comes from a “flash flood” of data. The mental-health-focused department operated with one team for half of 2020. Ever since, the team size has increased — as has people’s awareness of the program.
The Sheriff’s Office also reports the average cost of a mental health stabilization intervention is $1,138 per crisis, which is covered by the Sheriff’s Office. Without the stabilization efforts, the cost of a mental health crisis averages $35,350, with thousands of paid out of the patient’s pocket, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The response team avoids the high cost by dispatching in place of fire, EMS and law enforcement; preventing certain situations that result in hospital visits; and avoiding costly mental health facilities and outpatient treatment. The Sheriff’s Office avoids all of this directly by dispatching an unmarked, plainclothes team to the scene where it can treat someone in crisis.
And not all the team’s work happens in the field, either.
“We had a young person who expressed an interest in going to college, but he didn’t know where to start,” administrative coordinator Anne Lindblom said. “We’re going to challenge him. We’re going to help him prep for SATs and ACTs.”
Beyond that, she said, the team can work with the individual to see what a college visit might look like and how to prepare a resume. The team goes beyond crisis stabilization to include community support.
Bottman described one situation where a minor went to a longterm treatment program for mental health, leaving his grandmother alone.
“That — on her — was a lot of stress,” he said. “We would go on walks with her once a week. The church for her was a really supportive thing, so (we said) let’s get back into that.”
He said building community support was a key to preventing mental health crises.
“Community connectedness is a direct indicator of mental health,” Building Hope Executive Director Jen McAtamney added.
The response team is complimented by the jail-based recidivism prevention program, where deputies perform a brief mental health and trauma screening of arrested individuals to determine their need.
“Not every jail screens every person coming in for mental health, substance use and trauma,” FitzSimons said.
In 2021, the anti-recidivism program conducted 653 screenings, and 324 came up positive for a mental illness deserving help. Of those arrestees, 224 received therapy through STARR. A handful refused therapy, and many others did not reside in Summit County.
In 2020, deputies performed 432 screenings, with 201 positives and 112 accepting recidivism reducing therapy services.
Lt. Sylvia Simms, the Strategies to Avoid Relapse and Recidivism director, said the program’s small beginnings skew the data. She said the program had fewer services and team members during that time, and the jail population was low due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She also said about 60% of her clients are transient. They do not live in Summit County but committed an offense here. They are detained far from home and often are in need of simple supplies like clothes and a phone, she said.
For that reason, a closet in the Justice Center is full of donated clothes, shoes, phones, toiletries, a pair of bicycles and more.
FitzSimons said when he first took his office, he inherited lawsuits stemming from a suicide in his department’s jail. He said the same thing happening in the county — a failure in mental health care — was happening in the jail.
The jail has not had a single suicide since.
“The (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) wanted to know how we did this because they want to institute this in federal prisons,” FitzSimons said.
May is mental health awareness month. Summit County has an above average suicide rate, and both Building Hope and SMART reported rising numbers of mental health crises in Summit County involving minors.
Clinicians are available 24/7 on the Colorado Crisis Hotline at 1-844-493-8255 to help with mental health, substance abuse and emotional concerns.
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