Routt County Sheriff’s Office explores full-time mental health response program
Nearly a year after the Steamboat Springs Police Department began a co-responder program where mental health officials join officers in responding to mental health calls, the Routt County Sheriff’s Office is hoping to implement a similar, more in-depth program.
While the project is in its infancy, Routt County Undersheriff Doug Scherar said the county is hoping to model its program after Summit County’s Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team (SMART) program.
Through the SMART program, a deputy and a mental health clinician jointly respond to mental health calls, with the deputy wearing plain clothes and the pair arriving in an unmarked car. The clinician follows up with the person in crisis and helps provide access to transit, medication, counseling or other needs.
“I really don’t know what it will look like for us; I just know it’s much needed for Routt County, and it’s a direction we’re heading,” Scherar said. “There’s clearly a lack of sufficient mental health services in Northwest Colorado in general, not just in Routt County.”
Molly Lotz, executive director of Routt County Crisis Support, an organization that provides mental health assistance to first responders, said the program is meant to help provide mental health resources to residents in more rural parts of Routt County, as well as ease the burdens of deputies responding to mental health calls they may not necessarily be trained to handle.
“What we know is that responding over and over to mental health calls can impact a responder’s own mental health because it feels ineffective,” Lotz said. “Not getting burned out on repeated responding to these calls is one aspect of what we do.”
Steamboat police currently runs its own response program with Mind Springs Health. Officers respond to a crisis call alongside an on-call mental health counselor. Officers evaluate safety concerns at the scene then let the mental health counselor handle the situation.
While the program proposed by the sheriff’s office is similar, Scherar and Lotz said they hope to have full-time mental health staff employed by the county responding with deputies, rather than contracting with an outside agency. The two also hope to employ a full-time case manager who can provide full-time services to those who the response team has interacted with, which is how Summit County runs its program.
Though the co-responder program works well in Steamboat considering its relatively smaller size, Scherar said a clinician responding to a more rural part of the county from Steamboat could take nearly an hour in some cases, which is why the sheriff’s office hopes to have a full-time counselor riding around with a deputy at all times.
“It’s a lot more in-depth than just Steamboat’s basic co-responder program,” Scherar said. “We really don’t even know what the outcome is or what the follow-up is afterward, because that’s all done by Mind Springs.”
Scherar will meet with Summit County in the next few weeks to discuss how the county worked through establishing its program. Scherar and Lotz will then seek funding from the Colorado Office of Behavior Health and Department of Local Affairs.
“That staffing piece is tricky because it’s tricky to staff everywhere right now, but we’re pretty confident that because this is such a niche type of position in law enforcement, that could be appealing to a lot of people,” Lotz said. “The forward-thinking aspect of it could be something that’s appealing to people who are in law enforcement but looking for something different.”
Lotz also emphasized that the goal is not to supplant other mental health agencies in town but rather to help law enforcement think outside the box in responding to the issue.
“Right now, nothing like this exists in the county, so the urgency in the county is much more significant,” Lotz said.
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021