Relieving an overburdened system: Mental health and law enforcement in Eagle County
Eagle County’s criminal justice system strives toward a new future of behavioral health support amid significant challenges
Eagle County law enforcement officials are often faced with responding to mental and behavioral health challenges as they interact with people on some of their worst days and in some of their lowest moments.
How those interactions play out at each step of someone’s journey within the criminal justice system depends on many factors — available resources, response models and diversion programs, but also a person’s race, socioeconomic status, and access to mental health care.
Eagle County voters overwhelmingly approved a 2017 ballot initiative dedicating funds generated by a 5% tax on recreational marijuana sales to address a local behavioral health crisis as high rates of suicide and insufficient resources collided.
The advisory committee that oversees the use of this fund allocated money to mental health support services for law enforcement agencies as a need for further reform was identified.
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“If someone is not getting assistance … Guess what? It’s 911,” said Greg Daly, Avon’s chief of police and a member of the advisory committee. “When that person is having a crisis, they’re generally not calling a clinician, they’re not calling a hospital — they’re calling 911. And based on the emergency response system, we are the first on scene.”
Since the fund began doling out dollars in 2018, $300,000 was given to the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley for the creation of a “co-response crisis intervention team.” Another $427,349 was used for a contract with Mind Springs Health to provide clinical services and “intensive community-based transition services” to inmates in the Eagle County jail, according to data provided by Vail Health.
These figures are taken out of a total of more than $2.7 million in funds allocated to date. Vail Health also made a $60 million commitment to create Eagle Valley Behavioral Health and launch a new, collaborative approach to improving mental health in the valley.
Since this boom, the criminal justice system has implemented a co-response model for 911 calls, strengthened diversion programs in the courts, offered up new mental health services for Eagle County inmates and, overall, increased training and collaboration across agencies.
This provides police with more of the support structure they need to respond to underlying mental health issues appropriately and allows for more mental health advocacy as people move through the system.
In many ways, Eagle County is now ahead of the curve when compared to other parts of the country.
That being said, significant challenges remain and, as Daly said, “there’s always more we can do.”
Limitations on preventative mental health care has implications for law enforcement as people are more likely to experience mental health crises when preventative care is not accessible, affordable, and utilized, said Vail Police Commander Craig Bettis.
In Eagle County, these limitations can be seen quite starkly when it comes to the local Latino population, who are more likely to be un- or underinsured and less likely to be able to access “culturally competent” mental health care, said Alex Sánchez, the executive director of local nonprofit Voces Unidas de las Montañas.
This is a story about how local law enforcement agencies have been challenged with responding to mental health needs in our community, the strides they have made in recent years and what remains to be done.
But that story is also about the broader community support structures that must be strengthened to lessen the load on law enforcement.
It is also a story about the passionate individuals within our criminal justice system — police, attorneys, judges, and crisis clinicians — who care deeply about helping their community heal and who often carry their own trauma from choosing to serve on the front lines of public safety.
Nearly all of Eagle County’s law enforcement personnel live within the communities they serve and consider themselves to be “part of the fabric of the community,” Daly said.
When it comes to being attuned to the mental health needs of their community, though, police officers must first be aware of, and respond to, their own mental health needs, Daly said. This is something he has tried to model every day of his 25 years in local law enforcement.
“We deal with so many people in crisis out in the community that we are always dealing with so much trauma [and] that trauma seeps into our souls,” Daly said. “The traditional way of dealing with trauma has been to put on the macho sort of exterior, you know, joke about it, act like it doesn’t hurt me on the inside and go home and probably drink excessively.”
Law enforcement officials experience higher rates of poor mental health, substance abuse and suicide, national trends to which Eagle County is no exception.
The number of police officers nationwide who died by suicide was found to be more than triple that of officers fatally injured in the line of duty. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are five times higher among police than the rest of the population.
“A lot of that is down to us always trying to be the guardians of others and the last guardians of ourselves,” Daly said. However honorable this may seem; this approach ultimately ends up hurting officers as well as the communities they are sworn to protect.
“If they go up to the door and they have got all this stuff in their mind … how are they going to help other people? So, we have to provide an environment where they truly believe the people come first,” he said.
Daly led the charge in mandating annual, hour-long counseling sessions for all officers alongside their required annual physical exams. This policy has now been adopted by the Vail Police Department and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. Eagle Police Chief Joey Staufer said annual mental health checks are currently recommended for his officers, but he intends to begin mandating them as well.
Early intervention protocols used across Eagle County’s municipal police departments gather supervisors for regular meetings to identify officers that might be struggling, and every officer is trained to be vigilant to the needs of fellow officers, Daly said.
It is also incumbent on officers to understand the kinds of trauma that is present within the communities they serve. Local immigrants, for example, are often exposed to unique kinds of trauma, some of which can be triggered in interactions with law enforcement, Sánchez said.
Over 90% of the county’s police and sheriff’s deputies, including those working in the jail, have undergone crisis intervention training, Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said. The remaining percentage represents new hires that have not yet gotten the chance to take the mandated course.
Still, the 40-hour training cannot and should not take the place of a master’s degree in social work, Commander Bettis said.
“We are public safety mechanics and when we don’t have the tools, or we don’t have the part, we try our best to rig something up, temporarily,” Staufer said. “And yet, there are always those times where things could be done more effectively with more resources, more tools. And I think that’s what provides for a lot of anxiety in law enforcement – when we don’t have the tools.”
A growing number of police departments across the country are shifting towards a collaborative response model for mental health crisis intervention.
In Eagle County, the adoption of this model came at the request of law enforcement leaders themselves but, in other parts of the country, this change came in response to increased social pressure brought by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There’s always a set of factors in play at that moment, mentally or outside influences, drugs, alcohol, all those things play a part,” Bettis said. “Not knowing when sometimes you were looking at something that was indicative of a mental health illness was challenging, no doubt about it.”
Under Eagle County’s co-response model, “crisis clinicians” from the Hope Center are dispatched with first responders on mental health-related calls, said Carrie Benway, the agency’s executive director.
Of course, one limitation to this model is that it is not always clear to 911 dispatchers when mental health support might be needed.
“Some of these calls do present as mental health calls, but much of the time our call is a disturbance or fight in progress or intoxicated party, not related to any mental health issue, but when the officers or medics get on scene they see a different picture,” Marc Wentworth, Director of the Vail Public Safety Communications Center, said in an emailed statement.
Calls that are obviously mental-health related are categorized as such and the co-response model is initiated. Between the summer of 2019 and the summer of 2020, there were 44 such calls, and the following year saw another 40, Wentworth said.
Most times, though, crisis clinicians are called on scene after first responders have done an initial assessment of the situation.
The Hope Center’s crisis clinicians are based out of the Eagle County Paramedic Services building in Eagle and work 24-hour shifts like other first responders, said Jess Chezhia, a licensed clinical social worker on the crisis response team.
Paramedics address immediate medical needs and work with the Hope Center to develop a safety plan for future care, said Kevin Creek, a community health specialist with Eagle County Paramedic Services.
These safety plans are meant to stabilize individuals and connect them with other local service providers who can meet their mid- and long-term needs, the Hope Center’s Clinical Director, Dr. Teresa Haynes, said.
With a Hope Center crisis clinician on scene, people experiencing mental health crises were able to be stabilized and avoid hospitalization nine times out of 10, according to data from 2020. This represents a significant improvement and is supported by the Hope Center’s belief that people oftentimes have better outcomes when they are plugged into a strong support network but remain in their home environment.
Vail Police spearheaded an effort to create the county’s first “threat response team” last year, Bettis said. The team brings local law enforcement together with Eagle County School District, the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and mental health providers to focus on early intervention and preventative mental health care as a method of reducing violent criminal activity.
Individuals are referred to the threat response team by representatives of these agencies if they demonstrate “a pattern of escalation, a pattern of violence” towards other community members, often due to untreated mental or behavioral health issues, Bettis said. The idea is to intercept these individuals before crises or violence occurs to get them the resources they need.
This model is also used in Denver and across the nation. Sometimes referrals are made for people who have had frequent interactions with law enforcement or people who have displayed a pattern of violence on social media.
Since being formed in 2020, the team has identified and responded to the needs of three individuals in the community as of mid-August.
Most people who struggle with their mental health, however, do not pose a risk of violence. It is imperative that the humanity of people with more immediate mental health needs is respected and that they are seen as fellow community members, not just as potential threats, Bettis said.
In some cases, these response models help people experiencing mental health problems avoid further involvement in the criminal justice system. When legal means are necessary, the co-response team can advocate for a mental health evaluation to be done, which can then be submitted for consideration by the court.
Diversion programs and problem-solving courts can be used to further prevent those struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues from ending up in prison.
Eagle County is proud to offer two “problem-solving courts” – RISE (Recover Invest Succeed Excel) Court, which focuses on people with multiple charges for driving under the influence, and the Recovery Court for other drug- or alcohol-related offenses, said Lisa Morton, the county’s problem-solving court coordinator.
In Eagle County and across the country, these programs have proven to be effective in reducing the likelihood of relapse and criminal recidivism.
According to a 2020 report from the Eagle County Justice Center, 93.5% of participants in the Recovery Court achieved sobriety and 83% did not commit another crime in the first five years post-graduation. For the RISE Court, these statistics were reported at 94.3% and 85%, respectively.
However, enrollment in local alternative justice programs remains limited in the face of the thousands of cases that roll through the Eagle County Justice Center each year.
Together, the two courts have seen 178 participants and 110 graduates since they became separate programs back in 2013. As of Dec. 31, 2020, there were 11 people participating in RISE Court and five in the Recovery Court, according to the Eagle County Justice Center report.
The courts have never had to deny participants due to a lack of resources, said Judge Paul R. Dunkelman, who presides over Recovery Court. Rather, the programs are very intensive in a way that does not work for every offender and the small group environment is part of what makes the courts such an effective model, he said.
Keith Carrieri, a graduate of the Recovery Court, said his substance abuse was rooted deeply in struggles with his mental health, something he may never have come to terms with if he had not been pulled from the traditional court system.
“Luckily, I found the light somewhere in there to kind of wake me up and say this is not an option anymore, like you do have a problem,” Carrieri said. ”It’s wild how blind we can get when we’re going through these things.“
These limited programs are far from the only way that the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office strives to take mental health into account when assessing and prosecuting cases, District Attorney Heidi McCollum said.
Prosecutors with the DA’s office have the authority to decide whether or not they want to file formal charges in any case, McCollum said. The statute of limitations on prosecuting an offense often gives them plenty of time to take a more thoughtful approach, especially if there are no victims in the case.
“We can take a step back and not be in a huge rush to come to a judgment on what someone’s actions are maybe before we understand the background of some of those actions,” she said.
For example, someone struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder would be served best by prosecutors waiting for a mental health assessment before moving forward.
“Let’s help them through this and that way, maybe they won’t be saddled with a felony for the rest of their lives. People make mistakes and a single mistake should be given a chance for redemption whenever possible,” McCollum said. “Obviously there’s certain crimes that you don’t get that chance for, right, much more serious crimes where you’ve got very serious assaults or sex assaults or homicide.”
Depending on the nature of the case, a defendant might be better served through one of the court’s diversion programs or the prosecution might recommend mental health treatment in plea offers they negotiate with the defense, McCollum said.
“I think the most success that the criminal justice system is ever going to get in working with with individuals with mental health concerns is to address everyone individually and to not lump people together,” she said. “I think I would be foolish to say that everyone with mental health struggles has been treated appropriately in the criminal justice system. Of course, not everyone has, we know that that’s what we’re trying to address now.”
The DA’s Office must also be considerate of the mental health of victims navigating the court system, especially when they are tasked with testifying against a defendant who may have caused them great physical or mental trauma, McCollum said.
Victims are often quite nervous when asked to testify in a trial and, even before this step, the lengthy and confusing process of seeing a case through the court system can cause mental or emotional distress, she said.
“When someone testifies in court, they’re not getting to tell their story necessarily,” McCollum explained. “They can tell pieces of it, but the only thing they can do is answer the questions that they’re asked… The only time a victim gets to be heard with no constraints is at a sentencing hearing.”
The court relies on victim’s advocates to guide victims through the complex legal processes of speaking out against a defendant, explaining legal jargon and the reasons behind certain delays or procedures, McCollum said.
Victims often feel compelled to share intimate details of their trauma with prosecutors, but McCollum said they encourage victims to share only what is directly relevant to prosecuting a case. Prosecutors are legally required to hand any information shared with them over to the defense as this is considered evidence that could aid them in defending their client, she said.
When testifying, victims “are usually not only reliving the worst moment of their lives, but they are having to do it in a public forum and they are literally being judged on it,” she said. “Their credibility is in question from the jury and then they are subject to cross-examination from defense counsel, and it can be very traumatizing.”
The Eagle County jail
As people move through the court system and await release or transportation to the Colorado Department of Corrections, they spend anywhere from a few days to a few months in the Eagle County jail.
Jail Captain Greg Van Wyk said the average length of stay in the detention center is four to 10 days, but jail staff still take mental health support very seriously.
In the past, the detention center was relying entirely on behavioral health services it contracted through Mind Springs known as “jail-based behavioral health services” or JBBS, Van Wyk said.
Shortly after Van Wyk assumed his position in 2016, the jail was given $80,000 from the marijuana sales tax fund to expand this programming. The facility now offers its own behavioral health curriculum as well as case management support post-release, he said.
Vicky Bibler, a crisis clinician with the Hope Center, has come on board as the jail’s mental health clinician and provides initial mental health assessments as well as individual counseling for inmates with identified chronic and acute mental health concerns.
These are inmates who require closer attention than JBBS is able to give or who may be disruptive to the group therapy sessions offered, Van Wyk explained.
Inmates in both jails and prisons are at a significantly heightened risk of suicide, especially those who are behind bars for the first time, Bibler said.
“It is very anxiety provoking and demoralizing and then there’s others who have been in other facilities and feel like ‘I’ve got it good here,’” Bibler said.
“If you have any type of anxiety issue, many [first-timers] would have a panic attack,” she said, adding that it is important to consider that many inmates in the jail are waiting for their case to be heard and have not yet been convicted of a crime.
Sheriff’s deputies working in the jail undergo suicide awareness training to look for warning signs in inmates as well as fellow deputies. All jail staff strive to be vigilant to the individual needs of inmates and can advocate on their behalf if they feel like they might need outside treatment, Van Wyk said.
The jail evaluates each new inmate within the first 24 hours of entering the facility. Inmates have access to psychiatric treatment, including medication, as needed, he said.
Beyond these services, the jail offers a variety of volunteer-led programs including yoga, faith ministries and the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program for both men and women, volunteer and programs coordinator Sarah Kennedy said.
The jail’s main challenge in continuing to expand mental health services is not having the physical space, specifically classrooms, to accommodate this full schedule, Van Wyk said. The jail is also currently struggling with a shortage of staff.
One example of this strain came recently, when the addition of yoga classes meant that inmates’ hour-long outside time was reduced from seven days a week to five, he said.
Bibler had concern about this change as she said getting outside provides an important opportunity to get active and breathe in some fresh air. She encourages her clients to engage in as much physical activity as possible, even if it is something as simple as doing a wall sit or push-ups in their cells.
“From a mental health perspective, we know how important it is to get daylight and to get your heart rate up to increase your natural endorphins,” Bibler said.
The jail reduced its staff by three employees last year when asked to look for ways to trim its budget to withstand COVID-19 financial constraints.
Van Wyk said he hopes to re-up his staff soon. Ideally, he would have a full-time deputy specifically assigned to securely transport and monitor inmates who utilize these programs and services.
It is difficult to know how much of an impact these services make given the short stay of most inmates, Van Wyk said. He and Bibler both used metaphors about planting seeds, hoping they grow, but being at peace with the knowledge that they may not be around to see the leaves unfurl and drop seeds of their own.
“There’s certainly a sense of hope as some of these folks may have never come to an understanding of why they are the way they are, why they think the way they think — a sense of hope that they don’t have to continue in some of those behaviors when they get out,” Van Wyk said.
“There’s no guarantees in what we do,” he continued. “We’re planting seeds and hopefully those seeds mature into something for the future.”
Eagle County’s criminal justice system has made significant strides in identifying and supporting the mental health of individuals.
“We’ve seen a significant reduction in crisis calls for service,” Staufer said. “The reason being is we now have more services and more providers, better education, enhanced outreach. People are more willing to reach out before a crisis exists and that was the piece of the puzzle that we were missing for so many years.”
There is still much work to be done, though, and it is important not to become complacent or disillusioned with the reality of mental health in our community, he said. The way the valley is marketed to outsiders often serves as a painful contrast to what lies behind the eyes of its residents.
“Everybody wants to come out here. It’s beautiful. And yet there’s a dynamic that was hidden for a long time, and it wasn’t advertised,” Staufer said. “People are suffering, and they continue to suffer. And now it’s at the forefront and our partners and law enforcement, we’re addressing it the best we can with the resources that we have, and we want to continue to ensure that we can reach all segments of our community.”
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org