New bill would expand programs allowing mental health counselors to work with police officers

Politics

DENVER (KDVR) – Colorado lawmakers are discussing a bill that would expand mental health response teams working with law enforcement. 

There’s a growing trend across the country to send mental health counselors with police officers on calls, and in some cases, instead of police officers. Some lawmakers at the Colorado Capitol want to expand the state’s programs.

“I think we’ve seen video after video why this is important to address this in this time. For everything the community endures — especially the community of color and for everything that police officers that are doing the right thing have to endure — I think this is a critical issue to address on both sides,” state Rep. David Ortiz said. “It will be better for the community if we are addressing their mental health needs. It will be better for officers if we are addressing their mental health needs and for the community. We’ll get better outcomes with that.” 

Police officers are increasingly being asked to respond to calls of people experiencing mental or behavioral health crises. That has lawmakers looking for innovative ways help.  

“I served in the military, but I would never want to be a police officer because they are expected to do everything, when really a mental health care specialist would be more appropriate to deal with someone in a mental health crisis,” Ortiz said. “We need to start looking at how we are funding diverse programs in our community so a police officer isn’t the first person on the scene or the only person on the scene.”

House Bill 21-1030 is proposing $2 million in grant money for mental health resources for law enforcement officers and for the people they are called on to help.

Douglas County Deputy Dan Brite testified on behalf of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police.

He said, “Law enforcement is not designed to handle the enormous amount of mental health calls that we get and so it’s time we create these co-responder programs to help combat mental health in a much more effective way, give them direct access to resources.” 

He has first-hand experience. Five years ago, he responded to a suicidal man with a gun that ended in a gunfight.

“Had a program like this existed 5 years ago, there’s a really good chance he would’ve got more appropriate mental health resources and he’d be alive with his family and I would be not living in a wheelchair and not having experienced such a traumatic event,” Brite said.

He is supporting community-based public safety partnerships that will provide more tools for those responding to calls for help and hopefully better outcomes.  

The bill’s sponsors say it would be a competitive grant process, and they are hoping it funds programs to help police officers and the community at large.  

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