EL PASO COUNTY — The El Paso County Sheriff's Office first deployed a Co-Responder system called the Behavioral Health Connect Unit (BHCON) in 2018. Essentially, the grant funded program sends a Licensed Behavioral Health Clinician from UCHealth with a deputy on mental-health related emergency calls.
In the month of August, the sheriff's office reported that out of 396 mental health calls total, 99% were diverted from the jail. Plus, those with the BHCON Unit said they typically see an arrest rate between one and two percent. "Last fiscal year, we responded to a little over 780 calls, and we were able to divert 99% of those," said Behavioral Health Programs Manager for the sheriff's office, Carey Boelter.
Still, Boelter said they need to expand their services. "Our office had over 3,000 mental health calls. So, we obviously need more units to be able to respond to the calls that the office gets," said Boelter.
The team goes mainly on suicide related calls, but does also respond to some criminal calls. "If the team determines that the behavior that the individual is engaging in is due to their mental health, and they're willing to get services, our deputy can then choose not to charge them," said Boelter.
Plus, the decrease in the number of people taken to jail helps the deputies working inside of it. "Takes a big burden off of the staff that is here at the jail... When they're here in the Criminal Justice Center, we're limited in what we're able to do with them in providing them the true mental health care that they need... Jail is not the answer for everyone and everything," said Intake and Release Deputy Syreeta Barrow, who has worked at the jail for 16 years.
Barrow also said this year the program has been particularly beneficial. "With COVID being as rampant as it is right now, the less inmates that have to come into the jail, the less likely the chance of COVID spreading," said Barrow.
Sgt. Katie Otto is a member of the BHCON Unit, who said the program is a sign mental health crises are finally being recognized more and more. "We're just not able to cover much of the county, and it's something that is greatly needed: more services," said Sgt. Otto.
Right now, there are two units for the BHCON team, but they want to add a third one soon.