Fredrickson: Be proud of Colorado’s new police program

Michelle Fredrickson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

Be proud, Coloradoans. This state has done something really beneficial.

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For police in Colorado, mental health and substance abuse problems are becoming increasingly more prevalent. Last week, the Colorado Department of Human Services announced that it planned to address this issue through a $16 million investment over the next 3 years.

This money will go to police departments across the state to help promote programs that provide access to care and de-escalate situations when mental health is involved.

In a time where there’s often so little to be glad about, this is one moment where everyone in Colorado should take a moment to be proud of our state for this response to an escalating problem.

In Colorado, suicide rates are the 6th highest in the nation. They also trend toward the bottom in support for behavioral health programs. This program will change that, and will also hopefully address the state studies that show nearly half of state inmates need mental health care and almost three quarters need substance abuse care.

Fort Collins actually led the way to this decision by beginning a program last fall that establishes a partnership between SummitStone Health and the police departments, so a specialist from SummitStone is available to provide mental health services when necessary. This was modeled after a program in Loveland that has been met with success for the last two years.

With the new grant, however, the partnership possibilities across the state can reach new levels. This is already being implemented in Denver, where behavioral health experts are on staff with the police and will accompany officers responding to 911 calls where mental health is a concern. Other cities may opt for different approaches, but the goal is the same: To shift the focus away from a criminal persecution for mental health problems.

Police responding to mental health cases has long been known to be problematic. An investigative report from the Washington Post found that nearly half of fatal shootings involved a person with mental illness, and many of the calls about people with mental illness were not even about a crime – they were requesting help.

The victims’ families often stated that they called 911 for help and were met instead with violence, because of the erratic behavioral nature characteristic of mental illness. While most people were armed at the time of death, very few actually carried a gun.

More than half of the victims were killed in cities where officers had no training or support for mental health.

Not providing police with support and training for mental health crises is not fair to the people with mental illness in the community, and it is not fair to the officers themselves. It is not realistic to thrust an officer into a mental health crisis situation where there is a weapon involved without providing training or support to de-escalate the situation.

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Academic studies have found this to be true, finding strong benefits for all parties involved when police partner with behavioral health professionals.

Colorado did something wonderful by designating funding for a program like this. It’s sometimes hard these days to find good news when it feels like every day is a new catastrophe, but this is something that benefits everyone.

It’s a good day to live in Colorado.

Michelle Fredrickson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @mfredrickson42