Trained civilians could respond to low-level 911 calls in Denver with new pilot

DENVER, Colo. — Many people in Denver have stories like Gabrielle Rodriguez.

She hasn’t used drugs or alcohol since 2012 and is working to be an example for others who have struggled with mental health and trauma in the past.

She now sits on the board for the Caring 4 Denver Foundation, one of the organizations trying to find a new way to approach interactions between first responders and emergency calls regarding mental health.

“Nobody that’s using really likes to see a person in uniform,” Rodriguez said.

She, like many in her field, recognize that the system needs to evolve. Denver’s Police Chief agrees.

“How can we provide the support and the resources to meet those needs and do it outside of the criminal justice system?” Said Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen.

A team from Denver went to Eugene Oregon to study their solution, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS.

It’s a group of mental health workers who respond to appropriate 9-1-1 calls. Lorez Minehold, Executive Director of Caring 4 Denver, saw them in action.

“It really helped deescalate and really allowed folks to talk about what their challenges were in that moment,” Minehold said.

“It didn’t have that same stigma attached. When there’s sirens or police in uniforms, it can be really intimidating and make situations worse.”

Chief Pazen says if they can design the program the right way, they could save money.

He estimates between 10 and 20% of calls they respond to could be handled by a qualified civilian team, trained in responding to mental health crises.

“We want this done right, and we also recognize that there’s a need right now,” Chief Pazen said.

Pazen says they’re looking for more input from stakeholders in the community, and there’s no timetable as to when a pilot program could be rolled out.

They would also need to define when it’s appropriate to send police officers to scenes, compared to this alternative.

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