Mind Springs hoping to expand law enforcement partnership to other agencies | SkyHiNews.com

Mind Springs hoping to expand law enforcement partnership to other agencies

Alison Berg, Steamboat Pilot

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Several months after starting a co-responder partnership between Mind Springs Health and the Steamboat Springs Police Department, both entities say the partnership has been heavily utilized and a benefit to the community.

“The agencies love having the mental health resource available right away while they’re on a call,” said Gina Toothaker, Steamboat and Walden outpatient program director. “They like not having to put their officers in the position of having to make mental health decisions.”

When Routt County Communications Center receives a call about any incident, law enforcement officers are sent to the scene. If officers determine there is a mental health need, they are instructed to contact crisis counselors from Mind Springs, who arrive within 15 to 20 minutes of receiving the call. The counselors then work with the person in crisis to evaluate whether or not they need immediate inpatient treatment or should be set up with a therapist. If the person needs inpatient treatment, they are transported to either Grand Junction or the Front Range, as the Yampa Valley does not have such resources.

“The co-responder model in particular and having those partnerships in place is where communities in mental health are headed,” Toothaker said. “They’re becoming more and more available and communities are seeing the positive impacts of these services.”

Toothaker said the calls vary, but most involve a person experiencing suicidal ideation or some form of conflict.

“If it’s just someone that needs to talk to a mental health provider and there’s no legal or safety issues to be addressed, officers can leave and our clinicians can help address the issue,” Toothaker said.

Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen said the program is especially helpful to keep those in crisis out of the criminal justice system.

“Our primary goal is to divert these folks away from the criminal justice system and get them diverted toward the proper resources we have here,” Christensen said. “Oftentimes, if the co-responder is there, the way our protocol is written is there’s a conversation between mental health and law enforcement about whether or not charges are even the right thing at that point.”

While some people experiencing mental health crises may simultaneously be breaking laws, Christensen said those laws are often minor and the bigger priority is getting the person adequate help.

“We recognize that mental health is at play here and we want to get people the right resources,” Christensen said. “We’re really trying to keep people away from the criminal justice system who don’t need to be in the criminal justice system.”

Toothaker also said the program has been so successful that the Routt County Sheriff’s Office and Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue hope to implement it as well, though Mind Springs does not currently have the crisis counselors available for that.

“It definitely strengthens the relationship between the community and law enforcement,” Toothaker said. “It takes away some of the stigmas of mental health because there’s more understanding about it around the community and there’s an understanding that it’s OK to ask for help and to receive help.”

While the two entities had been discussing a 24/7 partnership for years, Christensen said the strong movement toward police reform sparked by the murder of George Floyd helped “ignite the fire” and shine light on the importance of such a program.

“Law enforcement has, for many years, been trying to get out of the mental health business, and conversations this summer helped us find ways to make our law enforcement response better,” Christensen said.

Christensen also said the program models the type of policing Steamboat residents want from their law enforcement officers.

“I want a police department that’s compassionate, we want to be the police department that the community wants us to be” Christensen said. “That’s my whole philosophy around policing, this community deserves a special kind of policing and we want to give that to them.”

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