Community policing with compassion in the Roaring Fork Valley
Trainings, conversations and support systems connect law enforcement with mental health resources
Change in the field of law enforcement is happening. Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario has seen it.
For most of his 34-year career in law enforcement, mental health just wasn’t part of the equation in Vallario’s training experience. A violation of the law led to handcuffs; a crime was a crime. A hard-line approach to law enforcement didn’t leave much flexibility — or support — for those experiencing mental distress or a behavioral health crisis.
That isn’t the case anymore, which is a a point of pride for Vallario and other law enforcement officials in the valley.
“So many law enforcement agencies have opened their eyes and shifted to realizing, this isn’t the good old days where all we do is chase criminals,” Vallario said. There is also recognition now that for those experiencing a behavioral issue, “these people might be acting out criminally, but they’re not necessarily criminal.”
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to drive discussion about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year’s project focuses on mental health. The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent partnered to explore topics in mental health including resources (Aug. 26), substance use (Sept. 3), suicide prevention (Sept. 10) and law enforcement (today).
Our project culminates with events Sept. 20 in Rifle (noon) and on Zoom (6 p.m.) with a panel discussion of local leaders and speaker Kevin Hines. An award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker, and suicide prevention and mental health advocate, Hines has reached millions with his story of an unlikely survival. Two years after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, thousands of people have tried to kill themselves by leaping. Only 34 have lived and he is one of them.
Due to a high COVID-19 transmission rate in Pitkin County, the evening event that originally had been set for in-person will be free and hosted virtually on Zoom; registration is still required and donations are encouraged. For more information or to register for the local events, go to aspentimes.com/longevity.
Attendees who purchased tickets for the live event may contact Samantha Johnston at email@example.com for a full refund. If a refund is not requested, the donated funds will be used to help offset the speaker fee.
“We deal with a lot of people with a lot of issues that aren’t necessarily criminally related,” he added, “but again, we’re the ones out there at three in the morning, and we’re the ones that people call. … We’re part of the community, too.”
Officers, lawmakers and community members are now more aware of the role mental health plays in a person’s behavior; they’re also more supportive of equipping first responders with the tools necessary to handle those situations, Vallario said.
One of those avenues is training; another is the emergence of co-responder programs that dispatch mental health clinicians to support law enforcement on calls related to behavioral health.
It’s a relatively recent shift in Vallario’s eyes, with awareness growing in the past five years, he said.
Aspen Police Department’s approach to mental health and community policing is evidence of that: Police Chief Richard Pryor secured funding from the city in 2016 for the department’s first human services officer, a position designed to connect people to behavioral health resources rather than place those people in the criminal justice system.
“It has evolved for sure, now four years in, because of the abundance of resources that we have in our valley — I think the system has become way more robust,” said Braulio Jerez, who has held the position for a couple of years. (Andy Atkinson, who originated the role, was “instrumental” in shaping how it served the community, Jerez said.)
The initiative has worked well enough that the department just brought on a second human services officer this month. Both officers are core members of the Pitkin Area Co-responder Teams (commonly referred to as PACT), a program that provides training and support for officers and includes mental health professionals to respond alongside law enforcement for some calls.
The initiative involves mental health clinicians from the county as well as a peer specialist and a case manager from Mind Springs Health, plus officers and deputies from Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County law enforcement agencies; it launched in 2019 after securing a $1.5 million grant from the state. Similar co-responder programs exist throughout the Roaring Fork Valley as partnerships between local agencies and the Aspen Hope Center.
It’s not that mental health was an entirely foreign concept a decade ago, Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott said. But now, there are a lot more resources to help first responders address it.
“Mental health issues and concerns have always been there,” Knott said. “We’ve just not had the ability to set up systems and provide resources, as we have in the past few years, to really make that the focus and make it collaborative efforts among mental health providers and law enforcement and (emergency medical services) and the hospital.”
Hiring for compassion, training for success
In Snowmass Village, building a police department equipped to help people experiencing a mental health crisis starts with “you’re hired.”
“We try to choose the right person to become a police officer: someone who exhibits patience, compassion, empathy, just in natural day-to-day life, that makes them a good officer and prepares them for dealing with those mental health challenges that we come across with out on the street,” said Snowmass Police Chief Brian Olson.
Still, it’s no substitute for intensive programs such as mental health first aid and crisis intervention team training, the likes of which are now the norm in departments throughout the valley.
Olson recognizes that need for training and puts it into practice. Every member of the Snowmass Police Department, including patrol officers, community response officers and the front office manager, has completed crisis intervention training.
Jenny Lyons, a county mental health program administrator who focuses on PACT, considers the crisis intervention program to be the “gold standard” in law enforcement training; the 40-hour intensive weeklong program gives officers the tools to help those experiencing mental health crises.
Other departments in the valley like the Aspen Police Department also have trained all of their officers in the program; PACT is even hosting two single-day “CIT 2.0” refresher courses this week, according to Lyons.
And many of those who haven’t yet cleared that all-trained mark are actively working toward a goal of 100% participation in the crisis intervention program, including the Basalt Police Department and Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. An eight-hour mental health first aid program offers a primer for officers in some departments, too.
A program as intensive as crisis intervention team training comes with a price tag that can total tens of thousands of dollars for one session.
PACT, which administers crisis intervention and mental health first aid training sessions for members of the team and other community partners, is a major source of that funding in the upper valley. The program spent $25,000 for a one-week crisis intervention training in the 2021 fiscal year; the one-day refresher courses happening this week cost about $6,000, according to mental health program administrator Jenny Lyons. PACT also contributed around $1,400 for mental health first aid training last year, she said.
Other sources of funding — and expenses —can vary from department to department and depending on the location of the training. At the Basalt Police Department, for instance, Chief Greg Knott said crisis intervention training itself comes at no cost to the agency but the hotel and per diem spending associated with sending one officer to an out-of-town session totals $1,065; that doesn’t include salaries, transportation or other costs.
It hasn’t been difficult convincing local elected officials to support these trainings come budget season, according to Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario. Investing in officer training and co-responding clinicians can save governments in the long run.
“A dollar spent on training could potentially save us a million dollar lawsuit,” Vallario said.
But with conversations about mental health response happening frequently outside of training sessions too, Knott emphasized that it’s near impossible to quantify the scope of the effort by dollars spent on training alone.
“We’re always talking about mental health. … It’s always in the forefront,” he said.
The crisis intervention training goes well beyond lectures in a classroom setting, Olson said. Actors stage possible scenarios in real time and behave just as someone in a crisis might.
“The training is long, it rattles your nerves, it makes your eyes well up with tears — it’s just super powerful, and it was amazing,” Olson said. “I haven’t heard anybody go through it who hasn’t been moved, and who didn’t learn an awful lot.”
The controlled environment gives instructors the opportunity to hit pause and check in with participants; a scenario going south might be followed by a prompt to take the situation in a new direction, teaching participants how to adapt and learn from their missteps while they’re still in a space where the stakes are much lower than they are out in the field.
“Sometimes we learn the most when we fail,” Olson said. “It hurts, but when we fail, we understand most specifically what it is we need to do better. Sometimes, when we get it right, that doesn’t leave a long, lasting impression.”
Collaborating on co-response
Still, training is only one side of the coin. A 40-hour program may be the “gold standard” in ensuring officers are better equipped to handle crisis calls, but it’s hardly an all-encompassing program, nor one that can provide an equivalent to the years professional clinicians and counselors spend earning their qualifications.
“You have to understand that law enforcement officers signed up to be cops, not to be crisis workers,” Vallario said, “and that’s why we rely so heavily on the people that signed up to be crisis workers.”
Hence those co-responder initiatives, which are implemented at agencies throughout the valley to offer mental health resources on the scene and after the call in an effort to better serve people struggling with their mental health.
Funding comes from a variety of sources, including state grants, backing from local municipalities and support for nonprofits that work in tandem with law enforcement.
There is also a community benefit in the outcomes of co-responder programs that can’t be qualified by a dollar amount, officials say.
“If we provide the proper health care for them, and the resources to get them on a different path, … I think that we’re going to have a better community than that old way of the revolving door, arrest, jail, arrest, jail, and never getting anything resolved,” said Kirk Wheatley, the newly hired Aspen Police Department human services officer.
He’s been in law enforcement for nearly two decades and just transitioned to the human services role; he said his own training was an “eye opener” to a way of policing that focused less on arrests and more on understanding.
“I think it’s just continual education,” Wheatley said. “I believe the more that we educate ourselves on the people that we’re really dealing with out there, probably the less calls we will have as a department and the less people will be thrown in jail that … shouldn’t be in jail to begin with.”
These co-response programs are “community policing at its finest,” said Jenny Wood, the director of criminal justice services in Colorado’s Office of Behavioral Health.
She sees three positive outcomes from the growing popularity of such initiatives: “It’s going to increase officer satisfaction, community satisfaction. … and divert people from getting involved with the criminal justice system when they really just need health care.”
“It really brings people back to why they became police officers,” Wood said.
Programs vary from community to community. But at the core are two components: on-scene support and after-the-fact follow-ups to ensure individuals get help and support beyond the moment of an immediate crisis.
The resources from PACT have been “tremendous,” said Aspen Police Department’s Jerez, who frequently works with the mental health professionals supported by the program.
“Honestly, it would make this job so much more difficult if I didn’t have (mental health professionals) alongside me, because the reality is, we’re not mental health clinicians, we’re not mental health providers,” Jerez said. “We get a pretty good understanding (of mental health) just with time within the department, with our training, but to make those calls and pinpoint a diagnosis, let’s say, on an individual — it’s not something I’m qualified to do.”
Data from the Pitkin Area Co-responder Team shows just how well a program like PACT can work when it combines trained officers with professional mental health workers.
Of the 259 behavioral health-related calls the team recorded in the first two quarters of 2021, nearly every event was addressed by an officer with mental health first aid or Crisis Intervention Team training and the vast majority of incidents — nearly 80% — were resolved on scene.
Most of the remainder were transferred to an emergency medical department and a small percentage were transferred to centers for substance use withdrawal management; there were zero reported critical incidents or arrests, according to reports provided by Jenny Lyons.
Plus, thanks to the follow-up baked into co-responder programs, some frequent callers to dispatch are dialing less often because they’re now connected to support systems that can better serve them through mental health challenges, said Colorado co-responder program manager Emily Richardson.
Between Basalt and Parachute, many agencies contract with Aspen Hope Center for support from the local nonprofit’s crisis clinicians. The nonprofit crisis center also supports survivors and first responders throughout the valley in the aftermath of critical incidents that involve serious injuries or fatalities and offers confidential counseling for first responders struggling with their own mental health.
Aspen Hope has been operating mobile crisis and co-response programs since 2010, years before other similar initiatives cropped up throughout the state, according to executive director Michelle Muething. (Whereas co-responder programs happen in tandem with law enforcement, the mobile crisis program offers standalone services under the Aspen Hope umbrella.)
Some early co-responder programs emerged in Colorado around 2013 and 2014, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the concept “went gangbusters” and began growing exponentially aided by state legislation, said the state’s co-responder program manager Emily Richardson.
Even so, “you can’t just put a policy on paper and say ‘bam, it’s implemented,'” Muething said. “It takes time and a whole lot of effort.”
Mental health professionals and first responders come from “two very different cultures,” Muething said. But once the cogs click into place, a strong connection between the groups helps ensure the success of the co-responder collaborations.
“Our partnerships and relationships are vital. … We know how to do this dance on-scene where they know when to let us step forward, we know when to step back and they step forward,” Muething said.
A “culture shift” in law enforcement
Richardson also sees another benefit to the co-responder collaboration: It just might be contributing to a positive “culture shift” in the way first responders view resilience and well-being by putting them in frequent, close contact with mental health professionals.
“Having a colleague close who is a therapist, who they can see is a fine person, isn’t psychoanalyzing them every second of the day and is knowledgeable about this stuff, I think that it just builds into the culture,” Richardson said.
Many of those who have been in the field for any extended period of time can attest to the challenges of the job and challenges — personal or professional — that come with seeking help.
Confidential peer support systems have been fundamental in the effort to shift the way first responders cope with the stressors of a job that can and does involve facing traumatic situations head-on. The programs allow first responders to get support without fear that they’ll be misunderstood or that disclosing their mental health struggles could jeopardize their job; some agencies contract with Aspen Hope Center for those programs.
Aspen Hope has a couple of staffers, Muething included, who can bring their understanding of first responders to debriefs and counseling sessions with local agencies. Several departments also contract with Code-4 Counseling, an organization that specializes in mental health support for first responders.
Support for — and participation in — these programs comes from those in the highest ranks. Vallario said he believes “you have to have support from the top;” Knott said that when the officer check-in program began at Basalt Police Department, he was “the first one through the door.”
“In my career, 25 years prior to that I had never walked through that door to speak with a trained person, and it was incredibly beneficial, and it was incredibly helpful, and I continue to go today,” Knott said.
The tides are changing now, flowing toward a law enforcement culture that is now more open to the idea of seeking mental health support, Knott said.
“We don’t do what has been historically done in law enforcement in my career of, you know, just go to the call and go home,” Knott said. “We really worry about the mental health, we really take that seriously of our officers and our deputies.”
And at the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, the agency has hosted a multi-day “mental body armor” seminar twice in the past five years to highlight the importance of seeking help, Vallario said.
Law enforcement agencies are hardly alone in their embrace of mental health resources and support.
It’s a collaborative effort among public safety agencies in the valley who are equipping their first responders with the tools to help themselves and others when it comes to mental health, officials emphasize. It’s not uncommon for dispatchers, paramedics, firefighters and police officers to deal with the same difficult calls, and the teams will debrief together afterward, said Chief Scott Thompson from the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority.
At Roaring Fork Fire, mental health crisis support is a section of the standard paramedic curriculum, according to Thompson. And those “CIT 2.0” trainings offered by PACT this week were open to upvalley law enforcement as well as other community partners like the Roaring Fork Fire and the Aspen Fire Department, according to mental health program administrator Jenny Lyons.
There is likewise support and advocacy for mental health resources for first responders themselves.
“I’ve been very vocal about it, and I think the people that lead our peer support within our department are very vocal about it,” Thompson said. “You know, none of us are tough-skinned enough that nothing will bother us. We all realize that we’re all human, and we’re going to get bothered because we see things that we shouldn’t see, we experience things that we shouldn’t experience.”
Like Vallario and Knott, Thompson also sees a shift in the way first responders address mental health.
“All those things are learning pieces and parts that bring us to making sure that our people are supported, and that what happened to us in the past doesn’t happen to the new generation of firefighters and paramedics and the police officers,” Thompson said.
When Vallario started his law enforcement career more than three decades ago, there was no support system for first responders coping with trauma; the mentality was that “you’re bulletproof and you can’t be affected by this,” he said.
“What happens is, we deal with these traumatic events that, being human, affect us too,” Vallario said. “There’s nothing in our training that makes us numb to these things.”
He has seen firsthand the consequences that come from that mentality and from the barriers — time, resistance, embarrassment, fear, a lack of resources — that accompany it.
“We say we put it on the shelf,” he said. “OK, then something else happens, we put it on the shelf, and whether that’s a three-year, five-year, 20-year thing, eventually your shelf breaks, and that’s when we start losing law enforcement officers to substance abuse, gambling, divorce, suicide, because we weren’t able to intervene at the time we should have intervened.”
The way Vallario sees it, a culture shift that embraces mental health is indicative not only of the attitudes within law enforcement agencies but also of a willingness from lawmakers to create the financial backing and legislation for something that “wouldn’t have even been a topic 10 or 15 years ago.”
“It’s snowballing,” Vallario said.
And it’s happening outside the world of law enforcement just as much as it is within the field, according to Aspen Police Department Assistant Police Chief Linda Consuegra.
“We all want to think that we’re strong, we don’t need any help,” Consuegra said. “And I think hopefully with our support program, the check-ins, we start to normalize that. And it’s just having conversations, right? … This is the struggle that everyone has.”
If someone is an immediate risk to themselves or others, call 911.
Additional crisis support is available via the Aspen Hope Center and Colorado Crisis Services.
Aspen Hope Center: Call 970-925-5858 for the Aspen Hopeline or 970-945-3728 for the Garfield Hopeline.
Colorado Crisis Services: Call 844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.