Jennifer Martinez wears a bulletproof vest and rides shot gun with police, but she’s no cop!
Martinez is a licensed clinician—one of two who tag along with Pueblo police and respond to mental health calls.
The goal is to save tax payers money in the long run by getting people the care they need instead of taking them to jail.
The Pueblo Police Department partnered with Crestone Recovery Health Solutions to get mentally ill individuals the help they need while reducing the amount of time police spend dealing with mental health calls.
So far, the program appears to be working, especially when it comes to de-escalating hostile situations.
“[Expletive] you [expletive],” one man yelled at Pueblo police while being detained. “You have nothing on me [expletive]!”
Cpl. Jeff Maize kept calm and politely replied, “You’re not being very nice!”
Police say their job can be tough, especially when trying to communicate with drunk, disorderly, or mentally ill people.
“People are a little skiddish to talk to officers when it comes to talking about any type of mental health issue,” Sgt. Eric Gonzales said. “We run across individuals with mental illness daily.”
Pueblo police may have found a solution to that could change the way law enforcement agencies across the country deal with people battling a mental illness.
Late last year, the department partnered with Crestone Recovery Health Solutions. Two licensed clinicians went through the police academy before hitting the streets with officers in February.
“When the program was first suggested, officers were kicking and screaming saying ‘I do not want anyone in my car with me while I’m riding around all day long,'” Sgt. Gonzales said. “That attitude has since changed. They have seen the benefit of having these clinicians.”
The clinicians are dispatched primarily to calls involving family disturbances, suicidal parties and welfare check calls.
The police department allowed our cameras to ride along during a shift to witness and document what they see.
Our first call—an elderly woman who appeared a bit disoriented after she accidentally called 9-1-1.
“I was just confused,” the woman told officers. “I’m really confused.”
The clinician and officer went inside to make sure she was okay before heading off to the next call involving a kid who bit his mother.
“We had a juvenile male here that was having some anger outbursts and anger issues and basically needed some resources for some coping skills,” Martinez said.
After mom received medical care, Martinez talked with the kid and gave him and his mom the name and contact information for a nearby center that helps children with behavioral issues.
Martinez also offered the child the option to see a mental health therapist that afternoon.
“They (the mom and son) did decline at this time which is something they can do,” she said. “We can’t force anyone to go unless they are a danger to them or others.”
The next call involved a family disturbance.
“He (my cousin) put the water hose in my bedroom window and turned it on,” the caller said.
Police found the suspect hanging out in a garage after reportedly cutting his disabled cousin’s television cord and then putting a hose through her bedroom window, wetting her bed and floor.
The man is detained and is agitated by questions from officers.
“[Expletive] you,” the detained man yelled.
His tone, however, quickly changed when the therapist starts asking questions.
“Were you mad at your cousin and that’s why you turned the sprinkler on,” Martinez asked.
“No, no, no,” the man replied. “She wants me to clean everything up over here. I can’t do it by myself.”
“I understand, it’s a lot of work,” Martinez replied.
“Every day,” the man responded.
The man eventually calmed down and agreed to leave for the evening.
Had he become more combative, he likely would have ended up in jail for the night.
“People with mental health disorders get arrested for a variety of charges including vagrancy, nuisance crimes, sometimes assault charges,” Crestone Recovery Health Solutions Director Jessica Russell said. “When people are responding to internal stimuli, they can be very violent.”
The goal, according to Russell, is to de-escalate the situation and get the individual into mental health services. Jail is a last resort.
Out of the 320+ calls clinicians responded to since February, only 3-percent ended with an arrest.
“Most of the clients they work with are going into services like outpatient counseling, being hospitalized for psychiatric needs, or just getting a variety of referral sources,” Russell said.
Russell adds 30-percent of people who clinicians interact with have taken advantage of outpatient services. She hopes these services will reduce the number of 9-1-1 calls related to mental health issues in the future.
“We’re putting police officers where they belong so they are responding to crimes instead of responding to behavioral health issues and we are not paying taxes on individuals who need treatment to be inside the jails taking up jail space,” Russell said.
This partnership will not eliminate officers having to respond to mental health calls entirely. However, clinicians hope by calming people down and getting them the help they need, officers will spend less time on these calls.
Before the program launched, officers were spending up to 1 hour on a mental health call.
Now, officers are spending around 40 minutes on these calls and Russell hopes to reduce that number even further to just 20-30 minutes in the near future.
Because of its success, the program is expanding. Pueblo police say a third clinician and case manager will start in the very near future.
Pueblo police do not employ these clinicians. They are paid through funding from Senate Bill 97 which aims to get resources and help to mentally ill individuals at risk of being incarcerated.
You can read more about mental illness and incarceration rates here.
News 5 contacted the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado Springs Police Department to inquire about mental health training for officers and deputies.
Sheriff’s spokesperson Jacqueline Kirby says all deputies go through classes and training to help them communicate better with people who may have a mental illness.
The Colorado Springs Police Department did not respond to our request to talk about what, if any training its officers go through to deal with people who have mental illness.