Mar. 7—Boulder is now operating an internal co-responder program in an effort to support those experiencing behavioral health crises.
The Crisis Intervention Response Team program pairs a licensed clinician in Boulder's Housing and Human Services Department with a Boulder police officer for a joint response on behavioral health calls.
It replaces Early Diversion Get Engaged, which Boulder operated via a contract with Mental Health Partners. City staff believe staffing the program in house will be a benefit.
"With all of us working together as city staff, there's really great opportunities for a higher level of integration," said Wendy Schwartz, who serves as Human Services policy manager and is leading the Boulder Police Department master planning effort.
How it works
There are four licensed clinicians from the city's Housing and Humans Services department who respond to calls where someone is experiencing a crisis, often related to mental health or substance use.
If a situation seems safe, the police officer and clinician may enter together, according to Lucy Larbalestier, the team supervisor who previously had worked with the EDGE program. Otherwise, the police generally enter first.
At the scene, the clinicians work with officers to support the person in need of help as well as the family members or others present. Clinicians follow up after the situation is resolved and can connect people with resources if necessary. The co-responders also educate the officers so they are better prepared when clinicians aren't present.
"We're a resource for folks that are really in a behavioral health crisis that requires police," Larbalestier said.
The CIRT operates from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends, so it's not a 24/7 team. Thus, there are times when no clinicians are working. Those typically result in follow-ups.
The program is funded in a few ways. The city redirected about $142,000 that had been allocated for EDGE as well as the funding for several vacant positions in the Boulder Police Department. The Boulder City Council last year approved about $162,000 in additional money for the program, about $20,000 of which is a one-time cost related to start up.
Councilmember Aaron Brockett ahead of the Boulder City Council's annual retreat in January suggested that the city look into a nonpolice-based emergency response team staffed by social workers and mental health professionals to respond to calls in which there is not a report of a crime in progress, violence or a life-threatening medical emergency.
He suggested the program could be modeled after the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Oregon, which has been around for 31 years, or the newer Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program in Denver, which has been successful since its inception in June.
"I think that there are a number of problems that really, fundamentally, don't need law enforcement involvement but ... instead need that mental health or clinician intervention," Brockett said.
Responding with a targeted intervention produces better results and can save money, he said.
CIRT is different in that it pairs a mental health professional with a police officer. City officials said they're starting with this model but have committed to researching Brockett's suggestion and sharing more information later this year.
"We're starting with the co-responder model because that's something that we had in place in a different form through the contract and saw a lot of value in it. We're starting with really solidifying that," Schwartz said.
Between January 2018 and December 2019, 829 people, ranging in age from 9 to 94, received services through the EDGE program, according to program data. About 23% of calls involved a mention of suicide and just under 5% mentioned substance use or intoxication.
Larbalestier added that while Denver has the STAR program, it builds off the city's co-responder program and does not replace it.
Though he's hopeful Boulder will investigate his proposal, Brockett is supportive of the CIRT, calling it a "fantastic program" and agreeing that it makes sense to bring the team in house.
The Colorado Office of Behavioral Health in June released a report that evaluated its co-responder program, which offers grant funding to communities that want to take a different approach to behavioral health calls. The program, according to the report, is producing positive outcomes with the goal of preventing unnecessary hospitalization or incarceration.
"Law enforcement officers may arrest a suspect or take them to a hospital, rather than refer them to a community-based behavioral health program because officers don't have enough training or resources," the report reads.
However, it also notes some limitations such as a lack of policy alignment between law enforcement and behavioral health providers, data collection challenges and limited resources to increase staff.
Likewise, a January 2020 report from Policy Research Inc. and the National League of Cities states that when implemented well, the co-responder model has the potential to produce benefits such as better and faster responses to crisis situations; the ability to follow up to reduce the likelihood of further crisis situations; a decrease in expensive arrests and jail admissions for people in behavioral health crisis; and a reduction in psychiatric hospitalizations.
Additionally, Schwartz and Larbalestier emphasized the CIRT is not the sole resource in Boulder for those experiencing a mental health-related problem. They said it's not always necessary to call the police, though they recommend it if there is a safety concern.
"It's important to make the distinction that this is a good way to have the right support when the police do get called in, but it's certainly not the only option for community members when they need that type of help," Schwartz said.
The Boulder Police Department will host a town hall on Thursday from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. in which it plans to focus on the new program. Larbalestier will attend to answer questions.
Contact the Colorado Crisis Support line at 844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. There at 24/7 crisis services available at the Walk-In Crisis Center & Addiction Services, 3180 Airport Road in Boulder.