Colorado mental health professionals now responding to 911 calls

DENVER -- Many law enforcement agencies across the country are taking a long, hard look at the way they respond to mental health-related 911 calls.

That includes several law enforcement agencies in Colorado, especially in the wake of the ambush shooting in Douglas County that killed sheriff's deputy Zackari Parrish.

In Denver, six mental health professionals now accompany police officers responding to 911 calls, providing help that officers often can't provide.

Those clinicians responded to almost 1,200 calls last year, referring more than 300 people to outpatient treatment. Less than 3 percent of those calls resulted in arrests of any kind.

"The phrase that keeps being mentioned is a 21st century approach to policing for 21st century problems," said Chris Richardson, the program manager of the Crisis Intervention Response Unit.

Cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle have been at the forefront of this new way of policing. Not only are arrests down in both cities when social workers are involved, so are violent interactions with law enforcement.

"I think sometimes when someone is in crisis there can be a jarring moment attached with an officer that's in uniform, and then you have us, the 'touchy-feely' social workers that show up in a polo and are getting down on their knees saying, what is it we can help you with right now?" Richardson said.

The co-response teams are one part of a much larger strategy in the way law enforcement tackles the mental health crisis.

The Colorado Department of Human Services plans to distribute $16 million over the next three years to support a variety of efforts.

Several other law enforcement agencies in Colorado also use co-response teams. However, most only have one or two mental health clinicians.

The Denver Police Department hopes to expand its program to 20 clinicians by summer.

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