By building a proactive mental health approach into community response through police and fire calls, Douglas County is in a better position than it was five years ago.

In 2016, the Castle Rock Police Department embarked on a pilot program with the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative (MHI). The department donated an officer, car and equipment and MHI provided a certified clinician to respond to mental health calls. Thus, the Community Response Team (CRT) became reality.

Castle Rock Police Cmdr. Jason Lyons said the original CRT was created to manage citizens who were regularly calling 911 or the department for issues that were not emergencies.

“We had folks we were always dealing with,” he said. “They were utilizing a lot of police time and consuming city services. Law enforcement response to mental health had been flawed for decades. We would handcuff a person and put them on a mental health hold for 72 hours without knowing the root cause of the crisis or being equipped to deal with it.”

These callers, referred to as “high utilizers,” started being transitioned to the CRT in 2017. This meant a decrease in calls to 911, and citizens started getting help they deserved from people qualified to provide it, Lyons said.

Castle Rock’s success in the pilot program became the county’s gain. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has formed several Community Response Teams, along with the Parker and Lone Tree police departments.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said having CRTs is a game changer in policing, and citizens are benefiting the most. In the past, Spurlock said citizens struggling with a mental health issue would have been taken to jail or a hospital.

“They should not be in jail and we know that,” Spurlock said. “We are seeing more young adults and adolescents getting the right kind of care and that is not through law enforcement. CRT plays a huge role in our communities.”

“The beauty of the CRT is having a clinician go out on a call with law enforcement so that people in crisis can be directed to services instead of being criminalized,” said Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon. “Not only does this better serve our county residents but it actually saves taxpayers money by reducing expenses and impacts on law enforcement and the district attorney’s office when (citizens suffering from a mental health crisis) are diverted to care instead of our hospitals or county jails.”

Since data started being collected, MHI Coordinator Laura Ciancone said there have been 514 successful jail diversions. With CRT taking or intervening for specific mental-health related calls, an estimated 3,301 police and 547 firefighter calls have been released back to regular service calls and duties.

Ciancone said cutting out the use of public safety crews, jails and emergency rooms has saved the county an estimated $6.4 million in reimbursement fees since 2017.

With the CRT program initially focused on adults, in 2019 MHI started a youth program. Through working with local school districts and youth organizations, MHI has placed a focus on addressing the mental health needs of elementary-school students, teenagers, college-level students and young adults under the age of 25.