Breaking down stigmas and stereotypes: Snowmass, Aspen public safety officials work to better address mental health within their departments, communities at large
In an upstairs conference room in the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue station on Owl Creek Road, three public safety officials talked about what it takes to be hired on as a local police officer, firefighter or paramedic.
Specific to Snowmass, the officials talked about having established roots within the local area community. But Snowmass Police Chief Brian Olson, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson and fire rescue lieutenant Andy Fisher also talked about the broader qualities they look for in a potential candidate — and how those qualities have shifted.
“Looking at our department, I think everyone is good at being hard and soft,” Olson said of the Snowmass Village Police. “When we look for the person to do this job we look for that ability, the more compassionate person. We can teach officer presence a little easier than compassion. … We don’t hire that type of person anymore.”
That type of person Olson, Thompson and Fisher spoke of aligns with the broader, more traditional stereotype many associate with public safety positions, namely police officers, in the United States: A tough, hardline enforcer who should bottle up their emotions if they want to do their job well. But as first responders interact more and more with people experiencing mental health challenges or crises and experience mental health challenges of their own, many law enforcement and public safety departments across the country have started shifting their cultures — including Snowmass and Aspen.
“Traditionally, the mentality was toughen up,” said Fisher. “That proved itself to not work through an astronomical increase in police and firefighter suicides. … Now we’ve shifted gears and said, ‘Wait a second, we need to be hard when it’s time to make critical decisions, but afterward let’s let those floodgates open a little.’”
About a year ago, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue started up a peer support team, which Fisher heads, to help encourage fellow fire rescue employees to let down these floodgates after particularly intense or traumatic incidents so they don’t add up and weigh down an individual, Fisher explained.
The team also keeps an eye out for fire rescue employees who start to display signs of stress and mental health challenges, reaching out to assist and provide various self-care tools or resources if they need them.
“After a crisis multiple people or agencies are a part of, we host a debriefing for everyone who wants to come,” Fisher said. “Everyone has a finite number of exposures to crises before they go into debt, before they need to talk with someone who can relate.”
For Fisher, the opportunity to serve as the coordinator of this relatively new peer support program was an opportunity to learn how to better help himself and his peers.
He said because the job is often stressful, intense and high risk, it’s easy for public safety officials to keep their experiences to themselves, which Fisher has seen and experienced firsthand.
Fisher and Thompson said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue hasn’t lost any employees to suicide, and are working upstream through the peer support program to keep that number at zero.
Olson said Snowmass Village Police does not have a peer support program in place, but has utilized Roaring Fork Fire Rescue peer support tools and debriefings, and other mental health resources in the Aspen-Snowmass area.
However, for Olson, Thompson and Fisher, the bulk of upstream work to ensure public safety officials maintain good mental health is rooted in the two departments’ mantras: Family first.
“With our department family life comes first, job comes second, and I make sure everybody knows that,” Olson said. “I think that’s an organic, healthy process that keeps everybody kind of dialed in. It’s a real stressful job but family can help people kind of stay grounded and maintain a good attitude.”
MENTAL HEALTH CALLS IN THE FIELD
The way first responders approach and address mental health-related situations is another aspect of public safety and law enforcement that is shifting in the Aspen-Snowmass area.
This shift was most recently discussed during a panel discussion in the Wheeler Opera House after the Aspen Mountain Film Festival screening of “Ernie & Joe” on Aug. 23.
Named after two San Antonio, Texas, police officers, the 98-minute documentary highlights how Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro are working to change the way their police department handles mental health emergency calls — de-escalating and decriminalizing mental illness versus using force or throwing a person in jail in response to a crisis.
One of the most vivid scenes of the film shows real footage from a crisis call Ernie and Joe responded to.
A woman could be seen straddling the concrete wall of a bridge that looked like it stretched over a highway. Streetlights illuminated the woman, visibly distressed and shaking. She told Ernie and Joe she wanted to jump.
After what seemed like forever, the officers were seemingly able to build trust with the woman, talk her off of the bridge wall and bring her to a local crisis center.
During the panel discussion after the film, both Ernie and Joe talked with the Aspen audience about the importance of showing compassion in those crisis situations, and in working closely with whatever mental health institutions and resources are available.
This sort of collaborative, compassionate approach to mental health emergency calls is exactly what was unveiled in the Aspen-Snowmass area recently through the Pitkin Area Co-Responder Teams program in June.
The PACT program, funded by a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the state of Colorado’s Office of Behavioral Health, pairs a co-responder, or licensed mental health clinician, with Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass law enforcement to jointly respond to calls where mental health challenges may exist. A peer specialist who has experienced his or her own mental health challenges and a case manager also is on the PACT program team.
As of late August, Katie Hundertmark is the only PACT co-responder working with Aspen-Snowmass area police officers, along with one peer specialist from Mind Springs Health and one case manager.
Hundertmark was supposed to be one of the locals on the recent Aug. 23 post-“Ernie & Joe” panel discussion, but couldn’t make it due to three mental health crisis calls in a row that night.
“Being a part of this program interested me because it incorporates helping people in crises but is more expansive and allows you to reach a larger number of people,” Hundertmark said of the PACT program. “It’s not just responding to crisis calls, it’s making connections and building relationships before someone gets to crisis.”
In a small meeting room in the Aspen Police Department, Hundertmark and her designated partner, Health and Human Services Officer Braulio Jerez, talked about their approach to mental health calls in the Aspen-Snowmass area.
As the HSO officer, Jerez mainly responds to non-criminal, mental health or substance abuse related calls either with Hundertmark or separate from her, as she rides along with every officer in Aspen and sometimes in Snowmass.
Regardless if they’re together, the duo checks in on a regular basis about the calls they respond to and follow up to ensure each local experiencing a mental health challenge receives the resources they need.
“Sometimes it makes more sense for officers to step back because our presence doesn’t get anywhere,” Jerez said of mental health related incidents, noting that he’s seen a definite increase in recent years. “But because we’re law enforcement, we are in contact with some of these people on a daily basis so we can really make a difference when it comes to de-stigmatizing mental health.”
From the Snowmass front, Olson and Thompson expressed similar thoughts. Hundertmark doesn’t respond to as many Snowmass area mental health calls, mostly because there aren’t as many as in Aspen, but Olson said his department utilizes the PACT program when they can.
“Law enforcement is great early on the scene and we can calm things down but sometimes a badge being there is not the best solution,” Olson said. “The sooner we can hand a person off to a clinical professional, the better for the situation.”
Like Jerez, Olson said he’s seen an increase in mental health related calls in recent years. Over the past year and a half, he said Snowmass Village Police have averaged five mental health related calls a month where a person has been brought to a facility for care, like Mind Springs Health or the Aspen Hope Center.
Olson also said Snowmass Police work closely with Thompson, Fisher and the rest of Roaring Fork Fire Rescue responders to assess every mental health related call and how best to address it.
“There have been countless occasions where the Snowmass cops have come in and have been personable and worked with us in this team environment to see how can we best serve a person,” Fisher said.
Moving forward, Hundertmark and the other Aspen-Snowmass public safety officers said they hope to continue improving and expanding the way they approach mental health challenges within public safety departments and the larger community.
The officials also expressed their gratitude toward their partners like Aspen Strong, Mind Springs Health and the Hope Center who have supported the goal of improving and supporting Aspen-Snowmass locals’ mental health.
“I feel honored to stand beside someone who may be going through the worst day of their life and to have them put their trust in me,” Hundertmark said. “Even if they’re not ready for my help yet, I get to keep showing up and will never give up.”
Storytellers sought for ‘Voices of the Collective’
Storytellers are invited to be part of a Live Storytelling event taking place from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 23 at The Collective in Snowmass.