• 20190211-123655-CEN20021420Police20dept-1

When a man in a rural part of Arapahoe County called 911 for help during a mental health crisis, he asked for a sheriff’s deputy to take him to a facility that could treat his condition.

But when the deputy patted the man down, he found the man had brass knuckles — a prohibited weapon — and the man received a ticket.

The man, who has a wife and kids and had served in the military, was facing jail time. But the staff at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office reached out to the right officials and gave the man a referral to mental health services, and his criminal charge was eventually dismissed.

“That was a really good story we recently had,” said Julie Jacobs, manager for the sheriff’s office’s Behavioral Health Response Program. Jacobs said the story is about an east Arapahoe County man, who spent about three months going back and forth with the court system earlier this year.

Deputies can’t ignore evidence of a crime, Jacobs said, but the mental health staff at the sheriff’s office tries to put the focus on getting help for people in mental health crisis instead of putting them on a path to jail.

That staff includes a team of mental health “coresponders” who react to 911 calls alongside deputies to handle mental health-related situations with the delicate nature they sometimes require. The sheriff’s office started its coresponder program in October 2019, and it has made thousands of contacts since then, according to the sheriff’s office.

Coresponders will never ask deputies not to charge an individual with a crime when it goes against policies or state law, according to Ginger Delgado, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. But not all crimes are “mandatory arrest” situations, Delgado said in a statement.

A person can be “diverted” away from jail if a deputy determines that the person can be released with a court summons or pending charges, according to Delgado.

“If we can legally and ethically and morally keep them in the community to get the (mental health) services, that’s what we want to do,” said Jacobs, who oversees the coresponder program.

Coresponders are clinicians who have their own unmarked vehicles with a partition in the back so they can transport people to emergency rooms, crisis walk-in centers, or other treatment facilities — or they can provide transportation to other locations when appropriate, according to the sheriff’s office.

That approach allows the team to avoid using ambulances, which would require a bill to families, Jacobs said. What’s more, the coresponders can handle situations without placing people in handcuffs.

“We’ve been called out to some schools before as well. What’s better for a 15- (or) 16-year-old kid? To be put in handcuffs and put in a police vehicle?” Jacobs said, adding, “We’re not making them feel like they did something wrong.”

Since the start of October 2019, the coresponder program has had nearly 4,200 contacts, according to the sheriff’s office. 

In 2021, just over 41% of all calls for service that a coresponder assisted with were not seen as mental health-related when the call was initially placed to 911 or a non-emergency line, according to Delgado’s statement.

Examples of calls not related to mental health can include verbal disturbances, physical disturbances and trespassing, according to the office.

Coresponders can respond to any type of call except death investigations or other violent crimes where an arrest is mandatory and a “significant criminal investigation” is needed, Delgado’s statement said.

The types of crime for which the coresponder team is not allowed to “divert” people include domestic violence charges and other crimes of violence, according to the office.

But even if an arrest is required, the coresponder can still provide information — such as whether the person may be at risk for suicide or whether they need medications — to the county jail’s medical staff, according to Jacobs. 

People who have contact with the program who are not arrested may be treated on scene if they do not request to be taken to a mental health treatment facility for a voluntary assessment — or if they do not meet criteria for what’s called an “M1 hold,” according to the office.

Under Colorado law, when a person appears to be an imminent danger to others or to themselves due to a mental health disorder, the person can be taken into custody and placed in a mental health treatment facility for an up to 72-hour treatment and evaluation.

Whether that “M1,” or mental health, hold takes 72 hours is up to the physician in charge — it could take five hours, Jacobs said, depending on the situation.

In 2021, the sheriff’s office wrote roughly 500 mental health holds, according to Jacobs. In 2020, the number was about the same.

But the rate at which the office authorized mental health holds in those years was different. In 2020, the number of overall mental health contacts coresponders were involved with was 1,645. And that was when the team was operating with, at the most, three coresponders, Jacobs said.

In 2021, the number of contacts was much higher: about 2,400 mental health contacts. So proportionally, the office wrote less holds in 2021 than in the prior year, a change that goes toward one of the goals of the coresponder program, Jacobs said.

“We want to make sure we’re providing the most appropriate level of care. An emergency room at a hospital” might not be best, Jacobs said. The program tries to take people to “designated mental health facilities” if possible, and it can be beneficial if the program can get people to go to a walk-in center, she added.

Out of the nearly 4,200 calls since the program began, there were only 88 individuals arrested on scene for warrants and new charges, according to the office.

But it’s important to note that the coresponder program’s implementation came shortly before the coronavirus pandemic reached Colorado, a change that resulted in the county needing to modify the requirements for who is placed in jail, along with courts changing procedures, Delgado’s statement said.

“Many charges that a person — mentally ill or not — would generally be arrested and detained on prior to COVID-19 were released on a summons,” Delgado’s statement said. The most recent change to the jail acceptance policy was March 11 this year. 

On that date, the sheriff’s office lowered the jail placement criteria so that crimes that result in $1,000 bonds and above would place a suspect in jail, according to Carl Anderson, an administrative manager with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office. Allowing for more suspects to be put in jail is a reaction to the spread of COVID and COVID-related hospitalizations having recently come down at the time, according to Anderson.

(In late April, Colorado Community Media asked the sheriff’s office how many of the nearly 4,200 coresponder-involved calls resulted in writing someone a ticket for an alleged law violation. The office’s records unit said it was still working on the question as of May 2.)

When a coresponder is unavailable to respond to a call, deputies can fill out a referral form for mental health staff to later follow up with the person who needed help.

At the start of the coresponder program, the sheriff’s office contracted with AllHealth Network and was assigned one part-time clinician, or coresponder, until a contract was signed in January 2020. 

AllHealth Network is a nonprofit mental health organization that provides counseling, psychiatry, crisis services, substance use treatment, and other services and has locations in Littleton and elsewhere in the south Denver metro area.

The program had three coresponders and one case manager starting at that time, Jacobs said.

In January 2021, AllHealth Network and the sheriff’s office decided against resigning a contract, and with the support of the Centennial City Council and Arapahoe County commissioners, the sheriff’s office brought the program “in house,” according to the sheriff’s office.  

Three of the current coresponders are former AllHealth employees who chose to come over and work for the program “in house” — meaning they’re now employed by the sheriff’s office — and the sheriff’s office hired its other two current coresponders in October through an external job posting, Jacobs said.