This story is the second part of a three-part series on the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative.
In 2018, Colorado Community Media published “Time to Talk,” an extensive series on mental health issues in Douglas County and elsewhere. To read that report, go online to coloradocommunitymedia.com/timetotalk.
By building a proactive mental health approach into community response through police and fire calls, Douglas County is in a better position than it was five years ago.
In 2016, the Castle Rock Police Department embarked on a pilot program with the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative (MHI). The department donated an officer, car and equipment and MHI provided a certified clinician to respond to mental health calls. Thus, the Community Response Team (CRT) became reality.
Castle Rock Police Cmdr. Jason Lyons said the original CRT was created to manage citizens who were regularly calling 911 or the department for issues that were not emergencies.
“We had folks we were always dealing with,” he said. “They were utilizing a lot of police time and consuming city services. Law enforcement response to mental health had been flawed for decades. We would handcuff a person and put them on a mental health hold for 72 hours without knowing the root cause of the crisis or being equipped to deal with it.”
These callers, referred to as "high utilizers," started being transitioned to the CRT in 2017. This meant a decrease in calls to 911, and citizens started getting help they deserved from people qualified to provide it, Lyons said.
Castle Rock's success in the pilot program became the county's gain. The Douglas County Sheriff's Office has formed several Community Response Teams, along with the Parker and Lone Tree police departments.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said having CRTs is a game changer in policing, and citizens are benefiting the most. In the past, Spurlock said citizens struggling with a mental health issue would have been taken to jail or a hospital.
“They should not be in jail and we know that,” Spurlock said. “We are seeing more young adults and adolescents getting the right kind of care and that is not through law enforcement. CRT plays a huge role in our communities.”
“The beauty of the CRT is having a clinician go out on a call with law enforcement so that people in crisis can be directed to services instead of being criminalized," said Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon. "Not only does this better serve our county residents but it actually saves taxpayers money by reducing expenses and impacts on law enforcement and the district attorney's office when (citizens suffering from a mental health crisis) are diverted to care instead of our hospitals or county jails.”
Since data started being collected, MHI Coordinator Laura Ciancone said there have been 514 successful jail diversions. With CRT taking or intervening for specific mental-health related calls, an estimated 3,301 police and 547 firefighter calls have been released back to regular service calls and duties.
Ciancone said cutting out the use of public safety crews, jails and emergency rooms has saved the county an estimated $6.4 million in reimbursement fees since 2017.
With the CRT program initially focused on adults, in 2019 MHI started a youth program. Through working with local school districts and youth organizations, MHI has placed a focus on addressing the mental health needs of elementary-school students, teenagers, college-level students and young adults under the age of 25.
Arriving in an unmarked car on a hot summer morning, a Douglas County sheriff's deputy, a certified clinician and a case manager walk calmly into a Highlands Ranch home. The night before, the county sheriff's office had been called about a teenage boy in distress.
The deputy who had responded to the nighttime call did not arrest the teen or take him to a hospital. Instead, the deputy referred the case to a unit known as the Douglas County Community Response Team, or CRT.
The CRT's three professionals are not there to intimidate, scare or get the neighbors talking. Instead, they are there to follow up and help a family going through a tough time.
There are multiple CRT units across Douglas County, as the county sheriff's office and police departments in Castle Rock, Parker and Lone Tree have all adopted this approach to answering calls of distress from members of the community.
These calls of distress do not involve people breaking the law. They typically involve stressed-out family members, residents contemplating suicide or people struggling with alcohol and substance abuse.
'Amazing how brave people can be'
Clinician Ellen Pronio explains that her job is to help get residents and families back on track by cutting through red tape, offering an understanding perspective and assisting in developing a plan that a case manager will take over.
In the CRT visit to the Highlands Ranch home, the mom talks about the night before, when both her teenage son and daughter were struggling, Pronio and case manager Steve Kalisch ask questions. The mom shows them a lengthy list of therapists she was provided, saying she already called some on the top of the list and they are not taking new patients.
Kalisch quickly scans the list and stresses that it's useless and he can do better. He knows many of the therapists on the list are not accepting new patients and can charge as much as $200 an hour.
As the mother explains that she does not currently have health insurance, Kalisch asks if she would be OK with him cutting through the red tape, saving her time in making pointless calls, and allow him to help. She says, “Yes.”
As a case manager, Kalisch said he knows which therapists are taking patients, which ones are affordable and where to send families who do not have time to call every therapist on a list.
Kalisch does not always ride with the team but said doing so on occasion helps him connect with citizens even more.
“I am proud of this team,” Kalisch said. “I have seen cases that are serious and (Pronio) talks and gets them to agree to help.”
Pronio said every person is different.
“It is amazing how brave people can be,” she said. “We ask questions and get honest answers. They are not playing phone tag or getting forwarded to some second or third party. They are getting direct help right away. Most people are willing to accept help and have the power to make their own decisions in those moments.”
A need for security
During the week, the sheriff's CRT covers all of unincorporated Douglas County, driving to homes and calls from Highlands Ranch to Sedalia.
The team usually starts the morning by following up on calls from the night before, traveling to homes from one side of the county to the other.
“Sometimes people can get so frustrated with the system that they just give up,” Pronio said. “For us, we go to the homes and show that we care. They get a response. For some, we will do up to three follow-up visits. If they want the help, we provide it. If they say go away, we go away.”
Driving Pronio and Kalisch is Sheriff's Deputy Zachary Zepeski. Zepeski offers security, but stresses that the real work is done by Pronio and Kalisch. While he gives full credit to Pronio and Kalisch, Zepeski's personable nature serves as a calming voice as they enter family homes to talk about highly personal and stressful situations.
The need for Zepeski's security is obvious on one of the morning's follow-up calls, in a case where a woman reported a domestic-violence incident involving her boyfriend the night before.
Zepeski leads the way, knocking and meeting the woman's boyfriend. Based on tone, the boyfriend clearly does not want the CRT there. However, through calm conversation, Zepeski persuades the boyfriend to get the woman on the phone where Pronio and Kalisch can speak to her directly, learning she checked herself in a place to get help.
Kalisch said his job moving forward will be to follow up and make sure she is still on the right path.
Zepeski says watching what Pronio does every day has given him a new outlook on how policing can take place in a community.
“When I first started doing this, I got some needling from other officers,” Zepeski said. “That went away as officers have become glad to be able to call CRT for help and have (Pronio) as a primary resource for calls.”
Taking the pressure off
Kalisch said the CRT is all about relieving stress on the system. When people with schizophrenia and other issues are calling 911 regularly, it puts pressure on police and fire departments, he said.
“The CRT takes that pressure off the system by taking the calls and having the partnerships that will get the help people need,” Kalisch said. “We take the pressure off the emergency side of public safety.”
Not all follow-up calls are welcome. At a Sedalia home, Pronio surprises a father opening the door. She tells him while he was out of town, his son called for assistance. The father was surprised by all of it and sends the team away.
Besides follow-up calls, Pronio has become a go-to resource for officers dealing with subjects threatening suicide or going through a crisis that required a call to 911. Zepeski said her ability to calm a subject down to get to a point where they can make rational decision is “impressive” and better than anything a police officer could do.
As CRT programs are taking hold nationwide, Zepeski and Pronio both say that Douglas County is a step ahead because of the commitment to maintaining the program and providing funds. After attending a national conference, the two professionals said they learned a lot of similar programs are completely grant-funded.
Pronio said job security in Douglas County is not about whether a grant is renewed. Instead, Douglas County commissioners have created a recurring line item in the General Fund to pay the more than $300,000 in annual salaries for departments to have CRT programs throughout the county.
Using partnerships, while the county pays CRT salaries through the Mental Health Initiative, participating departments provide the equipment and vehicles.
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