Aspen area cops search for mental health solutions
An increase in problems related to homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health in Aspen and Pitkin County is forcing local law enforcement officials to think creatively about solutions.
Aspen police Chief Richard Pryor on Wednesday asked the City Council for $100,000 to fund a hybrid police officer-social worker who would be specially trained to reach out to the area’s homeless population and try and head off problems before they begin.
“We need to find a more complete solution (based on) reducing their involvement with the criminal justice system,” Pryor told the council. “We need to be more effective in serving those communities.”
Aspen police officers already have had 400 interactions this year with 75 just in the past two months related to people grappling with mental health problems like suicide as well as heroin overdoses, methamphetamine freak-outs and general detox needs, he said.
Officers are frustrated with the growing number of these types of contacts and the fact that “they don’t have the skill set to manage these calls,” Pryor said in an interview last week. Moreover, those suffering from these issues are not helped by officers who deal with their immediate crises and move on, he said.
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Pryor’s idea, which is unusual in law enforcement circles, is to have the hybrid officer work regular 40-hourweek shifts, probably from early afternoon to about 10 p.m., he told the council.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said he has been grappling with similar issues and gave Pryor credit for trying to solve the problem.
“Richard’s taking the first step to what I think we all should be doing,” he said. “Anything that could help the mental health community and the homeless community is a good thing.”
Instead of a sworn police officer, DiSalvo said he’d like to see one established, central mental health agency take the lead in dealing with community mental health issues. Such an agency could receive all area money to deal with the problem instead of a few similar agencies that now operate on shoestring budgets. He suggested using the community’s detox facility, which is funded by the city, the county, Snowmass Village, Basalt and Aspen Valley Hospital, as a model for his theoretical mental health agency.
Like Pryor’s idea of the hybrid officer, counselors with the agency would be available to regularly deal with the increasing number of cases police officers and sheriff’s deputies don’t have the training to deal with, DiSalvo said.
County officials are looking at “really solidifying mental health services in the county” in 2017, he said.
“I wish this community would spend half the money on mental health it spends on the arts,” DiSalvo said.
During his appearance before the council Wednesday, Pryor acknowledged the experimental nature of his proposal, and also said it could take the form of funding a similar position within an existing mental health agency like the Hope Center or Mind Springs Health.
Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick said he and Pryor weren’t quite ready to present an official proposal for the hybrid officer to the council, but wanted to see if council members were interested in the idea.
“I support providing this kind of assistance,” Councilman Art Daily said. “It’s thoughtful, caring and what we need is something a lot more effective than we have now.”
Daily also said he’d like to see something done sooner rather than later.
“To me, this is not about money,” he said. “It’s about making a difference.”
Council members Ann Mullins and Adam Frisch also were supportive of the proposal, though Frisch suggested taking more time to think about whether the problem should be addressed directly by police, a mental health agency or the county’s Health and Human Services Department.
Barwick noted the council’s interest and said city staff would come back to them in the next couple months with an update.
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