A teenage girl wandering the streets upset and possibly suicidal. A man screaming in his room seemingly for no reason. A woman released from the hospital after a panic attack calling to say she is having hallucinations and trouble breathing. A person having a schizophrenic episode and causing a public disturbance.
As recently as three years ago, all of these actual incidents plucked from Durango Police Department records would have been handled by law enforcement officers alone. But times are changing – and all indications show it is for the better.
Two years ago, Durango Police Department and Axis Health System teamed up to provide a nuanced response for police calls that shade toward mental health, addiction and homelessness as opposed to outright criminal activity.
The effort to decrease the burden placed on police, jails and the health care system by sending mental health professionals or pairing mental health professionals with law enforcement or medical personnel to respond has been spreading across the country for years.
The Co-Responder Program in Durango, referred to as CORE, has responded to 1,419 initial calls since it hit the streets in June 2021. The number of follow-up calls may nearly double that number. For example, there have been 185 initial calls in 2023, but 260 total when follow-up calls are included. The program operates on $400,000 a year.
The program has been so successful that it is expanding to include La Plata County Sheriff’s Office deputies and Axis behavioral health providers beginning at the end of May.
The Durango team’s success stories include helping a person with a serious mental health diagnosis who had multiple contacts with police over the course of a few months. Team members were able to help access a higher level of care for the person while also getting the person’s loved ones involved. CORE has provided intervention for people “gravely disabled due to mental illness” and intervened without harm.
They go beyond assessments to tackle mental health and substance use concerns. They also help people access primary care for unmanaged chronic conditions, provide support to youths and older adults, problem-solve with family members and connect people to resources they didn’t know were available.
“There have been so many meaningful connections made, and the team sees real results and changes every day,” team members said in a joint email.
Team member and DPD officer Jonathan Mizner elaborated: “Over the past two years, we’ve noticed that as more of the community learn about the program, they call 911 to specifically request our team respond to help for a wide variety of different situations. We consistently hear from people, including clients and family members, statements to the effect of, ‘We didn’t have this back where I’m from,’ and ‘cops would never have helped like this.’”
Mizner’s comments strike at the heart of going beyond alleviating burdens on the system to also address the national outcry to reimagine public safety. The Durango CORE team includes two Durango police officers and two Axis behavioral health providers who rotate in two-person teams to provide uninterrupted year-round daily service.
Officer Forrest Kinney and Axis Health System social worker Matt Teague shared how partnering has expanded their awareness of the others’ profession and how the program has helped ease the load on police, jails and hospitals while also saving taxpayer dollars.
Teague’s two biggest takeaways about policing having been incorporating safety measures if things escalate during a call and the compassion shown by officers.
“I think there’s a connotation of law enforcement (as) heavy-fisted and no leeway,” Teague said. “But what I’ve seen is a lot of compassion and care and patience. And not just on mental health calls, (but also) traffic stops and real criminal things. They treat everybody with respect, and I think it’s really opened my eyes riding with these guys every day.”
Kinney said his biggest take-away has been understanding the depth of issues people with behavioral issues face..
“There’s just more depth to it a lot of times than what we used to think, and working with a therapist has helped me see that,” Kinney said. “We actually transport less people to the hospital now than we did before because we’re able to dive more into when someone has expressed that they're suicidal for example.”
It makes for better solutions, because a hospital visit is not always the best answer.
“There’s different steps that we can do to help people remain in the least restrictive environment possible but still get the kind of help and support that they need, which previously wasn’t possible,” Kinney said. “Well, I guess it was possible but it wasn’t something that we were doing because we didn’t really know much about how to do that.”
Helping substance abusers get into treatment programs and address the underlying mental health issues, which may have led to them self-medicating, has noticeably helped alleviate the burden on jails, ambulance calls and hospital visits, all of which save taxpayers money, Kinney and Teague said. The team’s approach looks at the bigger picture to find solutions.
“I don’t have the numbers, but anecdotally I can say that it seems like there’s definitely been a decrease in jailed transports and hospital transports for many of our patients or clients,” Kinney said. “We are having success for sure, working with people over time and figuring out solutions other than jail.”
Naysayers may say, “Why spend taxpayer dollars helping people overcome their personal issues when they should just be locked up?” But Kinney and Teague say it costs less to address problems up front. The perpetual cycle of taking people to jail, locking them up and treating their health needs while they are in custody is far more expensive.
While financial savings attributable to the CORE team have yet to be measured, a comparable program and forerunner that has served as a model for officials across the country is Cahoots in Eugene, Oregon.
The 35-year-old Cahoots program, which began as a community policing initiative, pairs a mental health crisis worker with a nurse, medic or EMT. Statistics on its website show that in 2017, Cahoots answered 17% of the calls to the Eugene Police Department and saved the city an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending. In about 24,000 calls to Cahoots, police backup was requested only 150 times.
Kinney and Teague said they are seeing similar results from people calling 911 to request they respond and in referrals.
“A lot (of our calls) come from police officers who request that we follow-up with people they have contacted,” Kinney said. “Officers may respond to a call but then call or email our team to check in with the person.”
“We get referrals from DPD, Manna, Espero, Axis Mobile Crisis Team and calls from the mental health hotline where there may be some safety concerns,” Teague added. “So yeah, we are really seeing how this program is needed and that it is making a difference.”