After implementing the SMART Joint Response Program, their use of strength numbers decreased significantly.
Breckenridge, Colorado. – Since 2021, over 1,600 Summit County police calls have been managed by A special team dedicated to responding to a mental health crisis.
The calls, traditionally considered high-risk calls for MPs and officers, resulted in no arrests, no use of force, and only a handful of mental health conditions, which direct people to a higher level of care such as a community mental health bed or hospital stay.
“Before teams stood here in Summit County, it became the default for public safety. I would say I took everyone to the emergency room and dropped them off at the back door,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime Fitzsimmons said. “And we literally broke into the back of our emergency room. “
FitzSimons created SMART, the system-wide mental assessment response team, in 2019 after a public dispute with the county’s former community mental health center.
SMART teams work with a deputy and mental health clinician who respond to mental health calls across the county in plain clothes driving an unmarked vehicle. They work in coordination with a case manager who works with clients after the initial call to connect them with mental health services in the community.
“The goal is to bring stability to the person right now in society,” he said. “It immediately begins to de-stigmatize and de-escalate everything that happens on the call. What MP provides is the safety and stability of that environment to enable the clinician to operate effectively.”
Fitzsimmons said the program has stabilized hundreds of people in crisis in the community, rather than hospitalization or prison. He and his team said he could save thousands of dollars in medical and ambulance bills.
“The default situation prior to 2019 was to throw people into the emergency room… Since then, we have actually installed hundreds of people in the community who may have been sent to a higher level of care, incurred the emergency room bill, and incurred the community psychiatric health center bill, They might have lost their apartment, their dog, their car, you name it,” Fitzsimmons said.
Once the situation is de-escalated, the person who was in crisis is linked to a case manager in the mayor’s office who directs them to the services available to them in the community.
Fitzsimmons said the SMART team pre-books treatment appointments with local mental health providers every day for anyone in crisis, so they can get help right away rather than waiting weeks for an appointment.
He said the team has reduced uses of force across his agency and other police agencies in Summit County. His agency estimates that SMART has saved more than 1,100 hours for police and other public safety agencies in Summit County since 2022.
“I hear people try to make it that simple,” Fitzsimmons said. “Like all you have to do is apply for one of the [these co-responder teams]…there are millions of dollars coming from the state. You just need to apply for it and then form a team. And go and do it… It’s not that easy.”
Al-Sharif said his team is funded primarily by grants, which are difficult for the department to manage.
“I got one scholarship that I got $385,000 in one year and $40,000 in the next,” Fitzsimmons said. “So now I have a deficit, and I’m walking around trying to make up for the deficit.”
He’s working on recruiting dedicated writing grant staff, but he said other smaller agencies interested in pursuing a similar program might find it difficult.
“What these types of programs need is sustainable funding … where the chief of police or the chief of police does not always have to look for grant money,” Al-Sharif said.
The future of the police
Fitzsimmons said he created this team, amid suggestions to remove crisis calls from police officers’ workload, because he believes that police will never unravel from the complex web of mental health crisis calls.
“If law enforcement is going to respond to these calls, why not get the proper response?” Fitzsimons said. “Why don’t you have this tool in your community, which in our case is the SMART team?”
Recently, the Summit County SMART team was able to negotiate with a man who threatened to shoot himself at a Breckenridge hotel. Over the course of eight hours, the doctor managed to convince the man to give up the gun over the phone, then worked to get him to a safer environment where he could get the help he needed.
Lieutenant Derek Gottzueller oversees the SMART program. He said the work changed his view of his profession.
“I’ve been with the agency for 18 years, and I always tell people I’m really sick of putting people in a box, in a cage,” Gottzueller said. “The same people over and over.”
“This is probably the most satisfying job I’ve done in law enforcement,” he said.
Along with SMART’s response to mental health calls in the field, FitzSimons has also established a similar program at Summit County Jail. There, guests are offered group therapy, adjuvant medical treatment for drug addiction, EMDR laser therapy and acupuncture.
A supervisor of this program, called STARR, or Strategies to Avoid Relapse and Recidivism, said it reduced people’s return to prison and helped others stay out of state prisons.
“I think with a team like this, a co-responder team whatever it might look like to your community…having this as a resource to publish any call at any time around the clock…it’s the future of policing,” Fitzsimmons said.
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