Opinion | Paul Olson: A SMART idea for better law enforcement and public health | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Paul Olson: A SMART idea for better law enforcement and public health

On June 11, a Boulder man called 911 because his vehicle was inoperable in the town of Silver Plume. He ended up being shot by Clear County deputies in what appears to be an extreme overreaction by officers to someone having a mental health crisis. If a mental health professional had been with the officers, it is very likely there would not have been a death.

We have heard the calls to “defund the police” in response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd and other tragic deaths involving the police. This simplistic slogan diverted attention from constructive discussion about ways to improve law enforcement procedures to enhance community safety and well-being. It can be ineffective and a poor use of public funds to call upon law enforcement personnel to handle problems that are beyond the scope of their training and limit the time they can devote to maintaining public safety. When a person is having a mental health crisis we need mental health professionals to be available to help.

24-hour crisis help

• Colorado Crisis Services: 844-493-8255 or text “talk” to 38255
• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call or text 988
• For life-threatening emergencies, call 911

Many political candidates across the nation are currently running “tough on crime” ads, using fear mongering to appeal to voters. It would be much more helpful to have candidates talk about smarter, more effective policing since the majority of calls to 911 have nothing to do with crime. In a 2022 report by Vera.org for a total of 15.6 million 911 calls in nine cities, an average of 62.6 % involved noncriminal situations. The Summit County Sheriff’s Office recognized the need for a better approach to community safety and mental health when they created the Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team, commonly called SMART, in January 2020. The sheriff’s office began the program with just one team consisting of a deputy sheriff, a licensed mental health clinician and a case manager. The program’s success and community demand have led to an expansion to four teams.

When a Summit County 911 dispatcher receives a call regarding a noncriminal situation best handled by mental health professionals, a SMART team in plain clothes and an unmarked vehicle is sent. The situation is deescalated, the individual is stabilized and a mental health evaluation is conducted to assess the need for local treatment or whether a higher level of care is required. A key to the success of SMART is the case manager who connects the individual with the proper mental health services to ensure effective long-term care. The case manager follows up on the progress of the individual as needed. In 2021 and 2022, SMART has been dispatched over 2,200 times either by 911 or to assist other agencies in Summit County such as fire or police. The teams have effectively stabilized every individual and not a single arrest needed to be made.

Sixty percent of the funding for SMART in 2022 is coming from four grants totaling $955,000.

Of the budget, $328,000 comes from the 2018 Strong Futures Measure 1A that was passed by citizens who recognized the importance of improving mental health funding and other local services. SMART often yields substantial savings in public expense on each 911 call. From January 2021, through August of this year, SMART has been able to stabilize in place 644 individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. Each of these positive efforts by the team can result in savings of $30,000 or more to the community and the individual by not involving an emergency room, ambulance, EMT, additional police officers, inpatient treatment and jails. Perhaps more important, stabilization by the SMART team can avoid disruption to the individual’s life within their family, at work or in school.

According to Mental Health America 23% of Colorado adults are experiencing mental illness with about 5% having severe mental illness. Over 5% of Colorado adults are having serious thoughts about suicide. 11.75% of Colorado adults have a substance abuse problem, giving our state the worst rate in the nation. People you see each day at work, on a hiking trail or at the supermarket may need the assistance of SMART or a provider of mental health care or substance abuse services some time in their lives.

We live in a beautiful mountain community but we need to remember that life here can be very stressful, even for those not experiencing mental illness due to low wages and the lack of affordable housing and childcare. In 2021 SMART responded to 91 active suicide incidents. The successful efforts of SMART in these situations truly made a difference in the lives of these individuals as well as for their families and friends. Each year we lose community members because of drug overdoses and suicides. We can hope the SMART program and the dedicated work of county health organizations will reduce the number of those tragedies to zero.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons emphasized to me how programs like SMART need to be built from the community up and require the support of nonprofits, businesses and concerned citizens to be successful. We are fortunate in Summit County to have many generous citizens and organizations such as Building Hope, Recovery Resources and Mental Wellness Hub to support the efforts of SMART and provide the services that improve the health of our community. At a time when we are seeing an endless stream of campaign ads painting a negative picture of government it is refreshing to see an effective program like SMART that demonstrates efficient public service while enhancing the lives of citizens.

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