Steamboat police partner with Mind Springs Health for 24/7 co-responder program
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In an effort to better serve people experiencing mental health issues in Steamboat Springs, the Steamboat Springs Police Department and Mind Springs Health have created a 24-hour co-responder program where a mental health counselor will respond with a patrol officer when police dispatchers receive mental health-related calls.
“The goal is to divert people from the criminal justice system and have them just be in mental health treatment,” said Steamboat Police Chief Cory Christensen. “The criminal justice system often isn’t the appropriate place for a lot of these people in crisis.”
The two entities have been discussing a partnership for years, but Christensen said the strong movement toward police reform sparked by the murder of George Floyd helped “ignite the fire” and shine light on the importance of such a program.
“Law enforcement has, for many years, been trying to get out of the mental health business, and conversations this summer helped us find ways to make our law enforcement response better,” Christensen said.
Mental health-related calls account for only 4% of the department’s call volume, but Christensen said those calls tend to require longer response times, and he hopes Mind Springs counselors can help alleviate some of the burden from law enforcement officers, who often are not trained in dealing with mental health crises.
“It’s about making sure our community members are getting the services they need when they need them,” Christensen said.
Gina Toothaker, program director at Mind Springs, said interactions with law enforcement can be intimidating, and a goal of the program is to alleviate some of the concern people may experience when police are called to a situation they’re involved in.
“I think that this model is also moving in the direction that people are talking about when they’re talking about police reform,” Toothaker added.
Prabha Unnithan, Colorado State University sociology professor and president of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, said this is “a crisis that has been brewing for a long time,” and it is important to help people with mental health issues from cycling in and out of the criminal justice system.
“The thought behind these programs is to get people back into the community and not have them shut away in a mental institution or in jail,” Unnithan said. “It’s important for the sake of the mentally ill person as well as for the police officers to have help and training in responding to these situations.”
Unnithan said mental health issues often go hand in hand with smaller crimes, such as drug use or public disturbances, and efforts to help people in crisis, rather than simply arresting them or booking them into state mental health institutions, can have long-lasting impacts on improving a person’s life.
“A lot of people don’t have access to real resources on their own and end up on the street committing minor incivilities,” Unnithan said.
Christensen said many of the lesser crimes he sees in Steamboat, such as trespassing, property damage or minor theft, involve deeper rooted mental health issues and the co-responder program will help officers have better discretion over connecting someone with resources for help rather than writing citations and making arrests.
“People in the middle of mental health crises aren’t criminals,” Christensen said. “That person is in crisis, and instead of charging them, we’ll have the co-responder from Mind Springs be able to help with the situation.”
Christensen said the department also often receives calls from friends or family members alerting them to a person experiencing suicidal ideation. In most situations, officers check to make sure the person is safe and direct them to mental health counseling, but the new program will ensure people can receive immediate help past their basic physical safety.
“Our law enforcement here is really great in dealing with mental health,” Toothaker said, “but typically, people are more open to getting help when they’re in the moment of actually needing it.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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