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El Paso County Sheriff's Office expanding mental health unit

Posted at 10:31 PM, Dec 31, 2019

EL PASO COUNTY — It's an issue that's only growing in southern Colorado - the mental health crisis.

But with a new year about to begin local law enforcement is stepping up efforts to help.

The goal is to get to someone in their time of crisis before it turns criminal and they end up in jail. The BHCON Unit of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office is already doing that and starting in February it will be doubling the mental health unit.

"We feel it's time to expand it," said Jacqueline Kirby, media relations manager for the sheriff's office.

Kirby said the BHCON Unit was established about a year-and-a-half ago and that "somebody who is in mental health crisis - we can dispatch the BHCON Unit there...to help them in their time of crisis before it turns criminal."

Come February 2020 there will be two teams - a deputy and clinician on each as well as one case manager.

Kirby said, "The initial team has been so effective in helping individuals with and who are in mental health crisis divert them from the court system and from the criminal justice system."

The latter - something Matthew Banach has experienced firsthand.

He said, "I was incarcerated at El Paso County Jail due to two DUI's."

Banach shared that he spent 20 days housed in what's known as the jail's chemical dependency ward where many of his fellow inmates were being held for drug-related charges. However, there were more than just addicts detoxing behind bars.

Banach said, "There was a couple gentleman in there. You could tell they had the mental capacity of a child and they're just stuck in there."

He said next to his ward were inmates being kept on suicide watch and that counselors are there to help if you're willing and able to ask for it. He believes for some of his fellow inmates jail wasn't where they needed to be.

"We're putting a band-aid on the solution versus actually addressing what the problem is."

While he believes the BHCON expansion is a step in the right direction he also said it's not enough.

"I worry about how many people that are being missed that, you know, are being incarcerated without being acknowledged that they have that problem."

The sheriff's office said in the first year of the BHCON Unit it had 532 calls for service and it was able to treat 450 people who did not end up in the system. With the additional team there will be coverage seven days a week instead of just four. The sheriff's office said there are mental health services in the jail and that discussions are happening on how to expand those.