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In Colorado, law enforcement are on front lines of mental health crisis

As shown by the case of Daniel Prude, who was killed by police in Rochester, New York, in March, there can be challenges when law enforcement is called to deal with someone who may have mental health issues. But a lack of funding for mental health support can mean the criminal justice system is the only way for those needing services to access them. John Ferrugia of Rocky Mountain PBS reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The challenge of police confronting someone in the midst of a full-blown mental illness episode was on stark display in Rochester, New York this summer, when it was revealed that police killed a black man there, and protests erupted for several days.

    This issue has been one that our colleagues at Rocky Mountain Public Television have been reporting in their own community.

    As John Ferrugia reports from Denver, law enforcement officers are often on the front lines of dealing with mental illness. And the criminal justice system is the path for access to treatment.

  • Richard Jones:

    Dispatch, where was he last seen?

    We get a call, basically, of a man with a weapon.

  • John Ferrugia:

    It happens thousands of times a year across Colorado and around the country. Police are called about a person in a mental health crisis who wants to harm themselves or others.

  • Richard Jones:

    Hey, put your hands up. Put the weapon down. Don't move.

  • John Ferrugia:

    As officer Richard Jones of the Pueblo, Colorado, Police Department walks up, he sees the man turn toward him with a gun in hand. Jones has his own gun out and ready.

  • Richard Jones:

    Put the weapon down! Put the weapon down! Put the weapon down!

  • John Ferrugia:

    Jones sees the man is wearing a sweatshirt, indicating he is a veteran. Immediately, Jones uses his crisis intervention training to try to find a hook, some way to connect.

  • Richard Jones:

    I'm a vet! Drop the weapon! Drop the weapon!

  • Man:

    Shoot me.

  • Richard Jones:

    Dude, don't do it to another vet! Don't do it to me!

  • Man:

    Shoot me.

  • Richard Jones:

    I can't do that, man. I can't do that.

  • John Ferrugia:

    After nearly 11 minutes of having his gun leveled at the veteran, the tense stand-off ends.

  • Richard Jones:

    Just drop it. Just drop it. OK, put your hands on your head for me.

  • John Ferrugia:

    At that moment, the relief of not having to shoot the man was overwhelming. After gathering himself, as best as he could, he went to the fellow vet and hugged him.

  • Richard Jones:

    I'm going to tell you, I'm going to get you some help. We're going to start right now. I'm going to get you over here to Parkview, and we're going to get it taken care of, OK?

    Love you, bro. Good job, man.

    We deal with a lot of these cases, and we get a lot that have weapons with them. There's days that we're one after the other, after the other. I mean, this is normal. This is normal. It is part of our job.

    But I can't do a burglary in progress because I'm doing — I'm doing one mental patient or party having a bad day after another.

  • John Ferrugia:

    And Jones, like so many other officers, is frustrated that his efforts seem to make little difference.

  • Richard Jones:

    There's been numerous times that I have been finished. I have left this patient with the mental health counselor, left, gone to the station, finished my paperwork, come back out, and the patient's walking down the street in front of me.

  • John Ferrugia:

    No place to put them.

  • Richard Jones:

    No.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Jones' frustration with lack of access to care, and placing people on a 72-hour mental health hold, only to see they are getting little help, is borne out by the numbers.

    In 2018, there were more than 33,000 mental health holds in Colorado, mostly executed by law enforcement. About 5,000 people were detained more than once.

  • Robert Werthwein:

    There's no guarantee in our current safety net system that the individuals will get served with the level of services they need.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Robert Werthwein is the director of Colorado's Office of Behavioral Health, tasked with overseeing the state's mental health system.

  • Robert Werthwein:

    I'd like a model that doesn't require the law enforcement system to be an integral part of it.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Werthwein says the only way to break the cycle of jailing people with mental illness is to provide more and varied levels of services across the state.

  • Robert Werthwein:

    There are a lot of people who need inpatient level of care, but there are a lot of people who need community-based intense care.

    Sometimes, it requires having a social worker drop in daily, saying, did you take your meds today? Do you have bus tokens to get to where you need to get to? Sometimes, it takes that much.

  • Kristin Lipsky:

    I would spend hours Googling on how to get help, where I could go. And I just couldn't find anything.

    They'd start talking about insurance. I'm like, well, I don't have that. So what am I going to do?

  • John Ferrugia:

    Kristin Lipsky works two jobs, and has worked hard to overcome mental illness.

  • Kristin Lipsky:

    When I was 14, I did get admitted to a mental health hospital, and I was diagnosed with depression.

  • John Ferrugia:

    A year later, when she started drinking and smoking pot, things only got worse.

  • Kristin Lipsky:

    It was in the drug rehab that the counselor sexually assaulted me. After that happened, I would say I went on a downward spiral. I started using drugs I had never used before.

  • John Ferrugia:

    It was a day, 3.5 years ago, she was coming down from a high, a day she threatened her mother with a knife, that deputies were called.

  • Man:

    Sheriff's office! If you're in the house, make yourself known!

  • John Ferrugia:

    It is clear both Kristin, whose paranoia was peaking, and the deputies, armed with a Taser and a gun, were unsure of what was going to happen.

  • Robert Werthwein:

    Are you with the military?

  • Man:

    I'm Weld County Sheriff's Office.

  • John Ferrugia:

    The deputies had no idea whether Kristin was armed. They just knew she was incoherent and saw the shotgun over the fireplace, and Kristin was moving closer to it.

  • Man:

    Get your hand out of your pocket.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Finally, they Tased her.

  • Man:

    She's got the knife!

  • Man:

    She's got a knife!

  • John Ferrugia:

    She stabbed one officer with the knife she had in her pocket. But they finally subdued her without serious injury.

  • Kristin Lipsky:

    I just had a knife.

  • Man:

    That you used on me.

  • Kristin Lipsky:

    Because everybody rapes me.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Once in custody, Kristin was given mental health treatment and medication to stabilize her. She then spent three months in jail, before posting bond to begin daily treatment.

    She pled guilty to a felony in the incident and was sentenced to eight years in custody in a halfway house. Now she is getting the mental health treatment she couldn't get before being arrested.

    In fact, in Colorado, a primary gateway to mental health care is the criminal justice system.

  • Joe Pelle:

    You have to decide what your philosophy is going to be.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Boulder County, Colorado, Sheriff Joe Pelle is a longtime proponent of providing mental health services in jail.

  • Joe Pelle:

    And if it's warehousing and security, this problem's never going to get solved.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Pelle says the jail population receiving mental health services has grown from 13 percent in 2002, when he first became sheriff, to now, on certain days, 60 percent.

    A lot of people would say, you're not in the jail business anymore; you are in the mental health business.

  • Tim Oliveira:

    Yes.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Commander Tim Oliveira, who heads the jail programs and support services, helps inmates get specific mental health services.

  • Tim Oliveira:

    Jails are becoming these mental health institutions, because people don't have anywhere else to go.

  • John Ferrugia:

    But in Boulder County, jail services are only the beginning.

    Once released, there are ongoing support services to ensure the person does not continue the cycle of mental health crisis leading to incarceration, with no hope of success.

  • Joe Pelle:

    We have put the probation officer, mental health provider, community health, public health provider, and a case manager all under one roof, so that they're not just leaving our jail without access to medication or without access to support.

  • John Ferrugia:

    The program is focused on offenders like Joe Dankowski.

  • Joe Dankowski:

    A couple of years ago, I was a mess. I was into drugs. I have a mental illness.

  • John Ferrugia:

    He has bipolar disorder and suffers from schizophrenia. If you if you hadn't gone through the Boulder County jail and gotten these services, where do you think you would be now?

  • Joe Dankowski:

    Dead.

  • Matt Jaekel:

    We provide people structure.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Matt Jaekel is manager of the Boulder County PACE program. It serves more than 100 people annually.

  • Matt Jaekel:

    Our entire team knows who you are. You see them daily. We build relationships.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Jaekel acknowledges the up-front costs are expensive, but he contends treatment for patients like Dankowski vs. jail is a bargain for taxpayers.

  • Matt Jaekel:

    It costs more to put a person in jail and keep them there per day than it does to utilize our services.

  • John Ferrugia:

    But for most counties with far less funding, mental health programs in jails are simply not feasible, and that means those in need of service simply languish behind bars waiting, and often getting worse.

  • Robert Werthwein:

    We have a safety net system, safety net being the behavioral health system that guarantees services, right, that doesn't guarantee services. And that's a problem.

    The state's failing these people. We can do more. We will do more.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Colorado's governor appointed a mental health task force to figure out how to reform the system and to pay for the services people need without relying on police.

    But the coronavirus crisis has now ravaged the state budget and plans for increasing mental health services. That means the daily struggle continues for both law enforcement and those who find themselves in a mental health crisis.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Ferrugia in Denver.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you, John. And to note: That report was done before the pandemic.

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