Local law enforcement and emergency responders in Montezuma County are more frequently responding to the human troubles of public intoxication, mental illness, suicidal threats, homelessness, drug overdoses and family disputes.
To better respond to noncriminal and nonhealth emergency situations, a Community Intervention Program is being considered in partnership with the Cortez Fire Protection District, local law enforcement agencies, Montezuma County administration, Axis Health System and the towns of Cortez, Mancos and Dolores.
The proposed new program seeks to dispatch an EMT and a trained mental health care worker to certain 911 situations in the county when a person is in a crisis and needs assistance.
“We are looking at different ways to respond to general crises occurring in the community every day,” said Haley Saunders, director of public relations for Axis Health System, and a member of an intervention program steering committee, during a presentation Monday in Dolores.
“It is a shift toward changing the way police are involved in certain calls,” Saunders said.
The EMT and mental health care clinician would address, mitigate and deescalate immediate problems, she said, then connect the person to social service and health resources to try and improve their situation.
The proactive approach also is seen as away to potentially prevent crimes, Saunders said, to avoid a “person having a bad day from being led away in handcuffs.”
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said the intervention program idea is worth considering.
How it would operate and funded long term needs to be worked out, he said, and procedures need to be in place to protect the safety of the intervention team and public.
“We deal with mental health issues and suicide threats, and lots of times it is combined with alcohol and drugs. There is no doubt the need is there,” Nowlin said. “It’s worth a shot to look at, something that is on the right track of trying something positive.”
The intervention program is also seen as a way to reduce welfare check calls on law enforcement and fire departments so they can focus more on responding to crimes and public safety emergencies.
Community Intervention Program teams would not be sent into to criminal, hazardous or hostile situations. Protocols at the dispatch center would determine the emergency calls that responders take.
Types of calls for the team would include welfare checks, suicide prevention and intervention, conflict resolution, familial and parental support, homelessness support, basic first aid and resource connections.
“The goal is create a program focused on prevention, to help people in the moment and enhance the emergency response system,” Saunders said. “It’s about providing support, helping people and families solve problems and move up.”
County officials and emergency responders report that mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic conflicts are persistent challenges in the community, and they have been discussing possible solutions.
A recent analysis by the county highlights the problems and includes data from dispatch, law enforcement, the 22nd Judicial District Attorney Office, Southwest Memorial Hospital and Axis Health System.
According to data from Montezuma County:
- There were 11 suicides in 2020, up from 7 in 2019. In 2021, there have been 7 suicides.
- There were 60 reported suicide attempts in 2020, up from 34 in 2019, a 76% increase. In 2018, there were 42 attempts.
- Suicide threats were made 169 times in 2020, up from 139 times in 2019 and 160 times in 2018.
- There were 68 drug overdoses in 2020 in the county, up from 39 in 2019, a 74% increase.
- The DA’s office saw 192 domestic violence cases in 2020, up from 167 in 2019, and 175 in 2018.
- There were 1,766 welfare checks in 2020, up from 1,579 in 2019 and 1,401 in 2018.
- Southwest Memorial Hospital reported 393 alcohol-related admissions in 2020, up from 341 in 2019.
- Opioid-related admissions increased from 36 in 2020 compared with 15 in 2019.
A Community Intervention Program steering committee has pitched the idea to county and local town boards. The committee requested the county commissioners to place the program under county administration. The proposal is under review, and no decisions have been made.
Once there is community commitment and a home for the program, securing funding and operation details would be the next steps, Saunders said.
The proposal seeks to share the annual costs between the county, Cortez, Mancos and Dolores. Grant funding also would be sought. Other potential funding sources could be the from the American Rescue Plan Act, opioid settlement, or a portion local government revenues from commercial marijuana sales.
Depending on the scope of the project, annual costs are estimated to be between $200,000 and $400,000.
The lower end would be for a health clinician and EMT covering 40 hours per week. Costs would increase for two teams covering 80 hours per week.
EMT’s specific to the program would be hired through the Cortez Fire Protection District using intervention program funding, said Chief Jay Balfour. The district would provide office space at one of the fire stations.
The county and the three towns have shown initial support for the idea but need more details on funding and operations before any decisions are made.
The Cortez Police Department, Mancos Marshal’s Office, Montezuma County Department of Social Services, Four Corners Advocacy Center and the Piñon Project also are supportive of the concept.
Correction: The number of suicides for 2020 and 2019 in Montezuma County has been corrected in this story.