Mental illness: ‘It’s not even really a law enforcement problem’

A Colorado Community Media editorial


In Castle Rock last year, police responded to 250 calls involving suicidal or potentially suicidal people.

Douglas County deputies responded to at least 500 calls related to mental health in 2017, Parker police to 222 such calls.

Lone Tree officers placed individuals on mental health holds 48 times.

Half of the population in the Douglas County jail has a diagnosable mental illness.

“When people look at county jails, they think we are housing bad guys,” said Capt. Kevin Duffy, of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. “All of our jails are psychiatric facilities. We are criminalizing mental illness.”

MORE: Mental health calls challenge police

The prevalence of mental illness in our society today is no longer a surprise. One in five people live with mental illness and one in 25 have a serious mental illness, national mental health organizations say. That means, most likely, we all know someone who is struggling with anxiety, depression or some other mental health condition.

It also means the jobs of the men and women who promise to keep the public safe have become even more complicated and challenging.

This week, the second part of Colorado Community Media’s Time to Talk series about the state of mental health in Douglas County focuses on how mental illness is affecting the daily work of our law enforcement officers and jail system.

They are taking on the challenge in impressive ways, undergoing training to be able to handle mental health situations with compassion and understanding, creating innovative programs that pair the law enforcement and mental health fields in responding to calls. In the Douglas County jail, mental health clinicians work alongside deputies in an expanded unit set aside for those struggling with mental illness. Collaboration with organizations in the community helps inmates find jobs and stay on their medications, with the goal of not seeing them again behind bars.

But a frustrating lack of resources, from money for more mental health support on the job to fewer community programs for people who should be in treatment rather than in jail, constrains just how much law enforcement agencies can do.

“I could take you down to my jail right now and show you inmates who should not be here,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said.

Mental health professionals have long advocated for more funding to provide adequate mental health resources to meet the challenge of mental illness in our society — before a crisis occurs. It’s clear that a concerted, collaborative effort is required to reverse the decades-long trend that began with an admirable effort to deinstitutionalize people with mental illness in the 1960s but foundered as federal funding to treat these individuals was cut in the 1980s and 2000s.

In that vein, more should look at the example set by the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative, a coalition of 37 organizations from the public, private, faith-based and citizen sectors of our communities, that has been toiling for three years to identify gaps in mental health resources and develop ways to fill those holes. One of those ways, a program that piloted successfully last year, brings police officers, mental health professionals and paramedics working together on mental health situations.

We hope this week’s stories provide a glimpse into the unseen challenges that police officers and deputies face each day — and to the innovative and caring ways in which they are responding. We hope, too, that they highlight the reality that the challenge of improving this dilemma belongs to us all — lawmakers, government, community and business leaders, and everyday citizens.

Lone Tree Police Chief Kirk Wilson notes that the mental health component to police work has always existed.

But “it’s not easy to solve and it’s not even really a law enforcement problem,” he said. “It’s a community problem.”

It’s going to take all of us to find a solution.

Time to Talk, mental health, law enforcement


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