Polis announce public safety package that would help fund mental health response teams
Gov. Jared Polis announced Thursday a $113 million public safety package that aims to help make Colorado one of the top 10 safest states in the nation. Of the $113 million, about $16.5 million is available in grants for communities to launch their own co-responder programs, similar to Summit County’s SMART team.
Leading up to the announcement, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons provided input to lawmakers about the county’s program and how something similar could be adopted in other communities.
The package doesn’t just include funding for co-responder models but also provides funding to recruit and retain law enforcement staff and for the Colorado Bureau of Investigations to investigate serious crimes. It also provides funding for behavioral health programs within jail systems, for preventing recidivism by investing in youth services and for investigating domestic violence crimes, among other things.
Most of FitzSimons’ involvement was focused on providing input about co-responder teams, such as the county’s Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team.
In an interview, Stan Hilkey, executive director for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said this funding was set up as a grant program so that communities could come up with a plan for what works best for them. FitzSimons has previously told state leaders, including Polis, that what works in Summit County might not necessarily work for other communities in the state. Hilkey said this funding gives communities the opportunity to be flexible.
“We want to hear all the good ideas that are out there, as well, and keep the program flexible so that it’s not just a police agency or community advocacy group,” Hilkey said. “The ideal collaboration is when they come together and submit a proposal and do it that way.”
Those who are awarded these grants will have to go through an evaluation process to see whether their co-responder model was successful. Hilkey said the programs that are most successful will be shared with future general assemblies, which might be interested in providing additional funding. Hilkey noted that some of the funding was from the American Rescue Plan Act.
In an interview, Polis noted that there are examples of other successful co-responder models in other parts of the state — such as Denver’s STAR program, which stands for Support Team Assisted Response — proving that programs like these can be successful outside of Summit County.
“We know it works; we need to see more,” Polis said. “Another benefit of co-response models is it frees up law enforcement resources to pursue real criminals rather than people who are having mental breaks or problems and have social service needs. We need to focus on fighting crime with our limited law enforcement resources, and this helps.”
There are still some loose ends to tie up, though.
Summit County’s SMART team launched out of a need to provide mental health crisis response services to community members when those services were lacking. Mental health treatment center Mind Springs was contracted by the state to provide crisis response services in Summit and nine other Western Slope counties, but when those services were not operating to an acceptable level, Summit County taxpayers passed a 2018 ballot measure called the Strong Future Fund, which now provides funding for the SMART team. This essentially means that Summit County taxpayers pay twice for the same services.
“I think the more we can invest in trying to deal with some behavioral health issues, the less we might end up paying in the long run,” Hilkey said in response.
When asked how mental health centers and these new co-responder models will coexist, Hilkey said he wasn’t sure.
“We’re going to accept the best ideas that come to us from communities,” he said. “I would imagine that ideas that are most attractive take advantage of the expertise of those mental health centers, especially those ones that are proven to do really well.”
According to FitzSimons, it took $425,000 to launch the SMART team, and it costs about $385,000 per team to operate each year. The county currently has four teams, and though FitzSimons cautioned that other models might not be like Summit’s model, the figures paint a picture of how far the state’s $16.5 million will go.
Nonetheless, FitzSimons said during a press conference that he is excited about the possibility of expanding the county’s team and that other communities could soon have similar programs.
“The estimated community cost savings associated with stabilizations in place has been nearly $17 million,” FitzSimons said during Thursday’s press conference. “I don’t just share this because I want to tout the success of this program — though I’m happy to do that — (but) because this program works in Summit County, and it can work in other communities across our state, as well.”
The funding has yet to be approved by the state Legislature.
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