Support-focused programs in the Summit County Sheriff’s Office aim to reduce mental health conditions and recidivism

For more than two years now, the Summit County Police Department has attempted to put together a new police force. One works in a space where a mental health struggle collides with law enforcement.

The department’s System-wide Mental Assessment Response Team program, locally called SMART, has handled thousands of calls since its inception in 2020, and the Prison-Based Strategies to Avoid Relapse and Return to Crime Program, or STARR, has similarly dealt with hundreds of cases.

Response team members said it was helpful to help treat underlying behavioral and mental health issues caused by abusive childhoods, neglect, and other experiences that lead to PTSD.

The mental health program responded to 621 calls and 390 assistance in 2021, according to data tracked by the Sheriff’s Department. Assistance occurs when members of the response team assist another law enforcement agency or community partner. The 1,011 responses come to about three a day, although calls are never expected.

“Obviously the crisis is an unpredictable topic in itself,” said Dr. Andrew Putman. “So some days, we might just go in and be a call to call, non-stop. Other days, we might only have three to four calls. It’s really what society does,”

Despite the large size, none of the calls resulted in arrest or the 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 more than a hundred assists, which means that the number of responses more than doubled from 2020 to 2021. Accordingly, the mental health response program has moved from a single team of three people — a physician, a deputy and a case management — to 12 employees across four response teams.

While the data may sound alarming, Summit County Commander Jaime Fitzsimmons said part of the jump is coming from a “rapid flood” of data. The department focusing on mental health has been working with one team for half of 2020. Since then, the size of the team has grown – so has people’s awareness of the program.

The sheriff’s office also reports that the average cost of the intervention to stabilize mental health is $1,138 per crisis, which is covered by the sheriff’s office. Without stabilization efforts, the average cost of a mental health crisis is $35,350, with thousands out of pocket for a patient, according to the sheriff’s office.

Response team avoids high cost by dispatching fire place, EMS and law enforcement; prevent certain situations that lead to hospital visits; Avoid costly mental health facilities and outpatient treatment. The sheriff’s office avoids all of this head on by sending an unmarked plainclothes team to the scene where they can treat someone in crisis.

And not all of the team’s work happens in the field either.

“We had a guy who wanted to go to college, but he didn’t know where to start,” said administrative coordinator Ann Lindblom. “We will challenge him. We will help him prepare for the SATs and the ACT.”

On top of 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 stabilizing crises to include community support.

Putman described a case in which a minor went into a long-term mental health treatment program, leaving his grandmother alone.

“That was – on her – a lot of pressure,” he said. “We would walk with her once a week. Church for her was a really supportive thing, so (we said) let’s go back to that.”

He said building community support was key to preventing mental health crises.

“Community connectedness is a direct predictor of mental health,” added Jane McAtamney, executive director of the Building Hope Foundation.

The response team completes the prison recidivism prevention program, in which MPs conduct a brief mental health and trauma screening of arrested individuals to determine their need.

“Not every prison screens every incoming person for mental health, substance abuse, and trauma,” Fitzsimmons said.

In 2021, the Anti-Regression Program conducted 653 tests, and 324 came back positive for mental illness deserving of help. Of those detainees, 224 detainees received treatment through STARR. A few refused treatment, and many others did not reside in Summit County.

In 2020, MPs made 432 offers, with 201 positive and 112 acceptances of treatment services to reduce recidivism.

Lieutenant Sylvia Sims, director of Relapse Avoidance and Recidivism Strategies, said the program’s small beginnings skew data. She said the program had fewer services and team members during that time, and the prison population was down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also said about 60% of its customers are transients. They do not live in Summit County but have committed a crime here. She said they are held far from their homes and often need simple supplies such as clothes and a phone.

For that reason, the wardrobe at the Justice Center is stocked with donated clothes, shoes, phones, toiletries, a pair of bikes, and more.

Fitzsimmons said that when he first took office, he inherited lawsuits stemming from a suicide in his circuit prison. He said the same thing that’s happening in the county — mental health care failures — was happening in prison.

The prison has not witnessed a single suicide since then.

“They[the DEA]wanted to know how we did it because they want to set this up in federal prisons,” Fitzsimmons said.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Summit County has above suicide rateBuilding Hope and SMART report increasing numbers of mental health crises in Summit County involving minors.

Doctors are available 24/7 on the Colorado Crisis Hotline at 1-844-493-8255 for help with mental health, substance abuse, and emotional concerns.