Boulder Behavioral Health 911 Response Pilot Program

Members of our Community Editorial Board, a group of committed community residents passionate about local issues, answer the following question: A proposed behavioral health pilot program in Boulder would send trained doctors to non-criminal 911 calls. Unlike Boulder’s existing joint response program, medics would respond to calls without a police officer. Your opinion?

A Behavioral Health Pilot Proposal The program in Boulder would send trained medics to non-criminal 911 calls. Unlike Boulder’s existing joint response program, medics would respond to calls without a police officer. Your opinion?

Boulder’s proposed Community Assistance Response Team (CART) one-year pilot program would allow Boulder 911 dispatch officers and the police non-emergency line to dispatch a doctor and paramedic behavioral health, rather than the police, to “calls that are not criminal in nature, do not present safety concerns, and may be more appropriate for medical and social care

service professionals. The benefits of doing so would include freeing up police resources for more serious public safety issues, as well as avoiding the possible escalation of non-violent situations that can occur when police arrive with lethal weapons. What took so long?

The best I can tell is that this approach developed nearly thirty years ago when a group of hippies at the White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon began an unlikely alliance with the local police department to allow a doctor and crisis worker (rather than police officers) to be the first responders in urgent, non-violent psychological or medical crisis situations. Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, with the tongue-in-cheek acronym CAHOOTS for its work with law enforcement, has now become a model for such programs across the United States. Denver recently began rolling out its Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, modeled after CAHOOTS, in parts of the city. In its first six months, STAR teams have responded to 2,837 calls for service, and during that period STAR teams have never had to call for police backup due to a security issue.

Remember that on July 4 of this year, Boulder police were overwhelmed responding to dozens of incidents that delayed their response to shootings and riots on the Hill. And sometimes when police respond to a mental health situation, there are tragic results, as occurred with the recent shooting of a Boulder resident by police in Clear Creek. Releasing law enforcement to handle public safety issues, while qualified doctors and clinicians deal with the crisis issues they are trained to handle, is beneficial to the community.

There will be practical issues to resolve. For example, how to handle potential overlap with the city’s current joint response program. In addition, Boulder may be trying to reinvent the wheel by basing classification at dispatch on whether there is “criminal” conduct, a potentially difficult legal call for a dispatch officer. Eugene, Denver and other places focus instead on non-violence, and it works. keep it simple Since this is a pilot, things can be adjusted.

Andrew Shoemaker,

The role of the police has evolved throughout the years, from the good-natured cop on the beat remembered by the iconic Officer Krupke in “West Side Story” to a group of highly-trained officers with specialized SWAT training meant to help deal with dangerous criminals.

Beginning during the Reagan-era drug war, the military began informally handing out surplus equipment to police departments across the country. This program was formalized by Congress in the 1990s. Police departments were issued tasers, sophisticated weapons, and in some cases even tanks.

Around the same time, the Reagan administration began to close the large mental health hospitals that were used primarily to house people with mental health problems. The result was an exponential increase in the number of homeless people with mental health problems. Communities were totally unprepared to deal with the myriad of problems that arose in connection with so many sick homeless people.

Public funding that had been available to help people experiencing poverty or mental illness dried up after Reagan and accelerated during the Clinton administration. Homelessness and mental health began to be viewed as a safety issue rather than a health issue and the police, by default, became the primary source for addressing this situation throughout the community. But police received minimal training for these crises, and interventions too often resulted in arrests or even injuries.

The significant increase in the use of opioid drugs has exacerbated the problems and there has been a large increase in what the city calls “behavioral health problems.” These are non-criminal emergencies where people act in ways that could harm themselves, but are generally considered non-dangerous. The increase in drug use has also increased medical emergencies that do not require a trip to the hospital.

Last February, Boulder launched the Crisis Intervention Response Team that paired a police officer and a mental health worker to respond to calls regarding behavioral health issues. The results were positive. Of the 523 calls the CIRT responded to, only two involved the use of force by the responding police officer and there were only eight arrests.

In 2023, a new program will begin that will allow mental health workers to join paramedics in responding to behavioral health crises, human services calls, and medical calls without an accompanying police officer, freeing the law enforcement personnel for other critical tasks. It is to be hoped that it will prove to be an effective and more appropriate response to this growing problem.

Fern O’Brien,

Years ago, the son of a friend he was trying to commit suicide by police. The boy was brandishing a knife and asked the policeman, “What if I run to you?” hoping the answer would be: “I’ll shoot you.” The officer replied, “I’ll run away.” I’ll run away… We must remember that most police officers are there to “protect and serve”. They’re not macho Dirty Harry types with an itch to shoot. But who wouldn’t want help defusing a volatile situation?

First, we need to clearly define the problem and the data to measure it. If we can’t measure it, then we don’t have to try to figure it out. Second, we must be clear about what constitutes success before testing the pilot program. Otherwise, we run the risk of defining success as whatever results happen.

The Boulder Police Department receives 80,000 calls a year. How often does one of those calls result in even an officer pulling the gun on him? About 0.1% of the time, or about seven times a month, according to BPD. And that number has been declining in recent years. Is that the problem we are trying to solve? I hope not, since it is not.

Boulder is a year into its CIRT program, which pairs a trained doctor with a police officer on mental health-related calls. In the first six months, the CIRT team responded to 523 calls, less than 2% of the total calls. The proposed pilot program would replace the police officer with a paramedic, freeing the officer from that 2%. did a study of nine cities and found that 62% of 911 calls were for non-criminal activity and 19% of calls were for behavioral health-related incidents. We should have these numbers for Boulder Police calls, as it would be crazy to propose a pilot program like this without those numbers. Right?

The police respond to all these calls because they are the ones we have to send. This pilot program is a step toward having a more diverse set of options where the 911 operator would select which team to send. What if we had a hierarchy of police officers, where most of the policemen weren’t even armed, like the British bobbies? We don’t need an armed unit to respond to a noisy party. They just need a badge and the authority to issue tickets, shut down parties and even make arrests, and only call for armed support if they feel at risk.

So, once we have the problem clearly defined and the success criteria specified, let’s go for it. What have we got to lose? The funding should come from the reduction of police personnel.

Bill Wright,

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