Time to Talk

Mental health calls challenge police

Increasingly, officers must rely on training that did not exist decades ago


In the dark, early-morning hours of New Year’s Eve, Douglas County Deputy Zackari Parrish pleaded through the closed door of a Highlands Ranch apartment with a tenant he believed to be experiencing a manic episode.

“It’s Zack. Matt, open the door,” Parrish can be heard saying on the body cam recording.

Parrish and fellow deputies had already responded to the apartment a few hours earlier on a disturbance call. “We’re here because we want to make sure you’re OK,” Parrish had said then to Matthew Riehl. This time, they wanted to place Riehl on a mental health hold.

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But minutes after they entered his apartment, Riehl fired repeatedly, the bullets from his rifle piercing his bedroom door and hitting Parrish, who fell to the ground and later died. Four other officers and two civilians were wounded but survived. Riehl was killed as a SWAT team tried to rescue Parrish.

In the days that followed, details of the shooter’s struggle with mental illness came to light through reports from law enforcement agencies.

“Emotionally, this is pretty draining and it’s sad,” Tony Spurlock, sheriff of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said at that time. He believed his deputies had done everything right, responding with compassion and patience. “They knew his history and they knew his propensity to have some mental health issues.”

The tragic incident is an extreme reflection of the complex challenges law enforcement today face when trying to protect their communities. National statistics show one in five people live with a mental illness and one in 25 with one so serious it interferes with major life activities.

That means police officers are dealing with mental health issues on their calls every day.

To be clear, the majority of calls don’t end in such deadly violence. Of the 500 mental health calls his deputies responded to in about a year, Spurlock emphasized the only one to turn violent was the one in which Parrish was killed.

And mental health professionals point to research that shows people who have serious mental illness and are receiving treatment are no more likely than the general public to become dangerous.

“The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent,” said Laura Usher, program manager at National Alliance on Mental Illness. “People with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence.”

But the prevalence of mental health challenges has inexorably altered policing: Officers don’t just fight crime — they must also be social workers and counselors.

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Interviews with leaders of Douglas County’s three city police departments and the sheriff’s office, as well as law enforcement training professionals and experts in the mental health field show many factors — some out of law enforcement’s control — affect how law enforcement handles mental health calls and often limit their capabilities in getting people help.

They point to limited funding, too many shuttered mental health and substance abuse programs, fewer beds at state mental health hospitals and fewer resources in general.

The mental health component is not new to police work, Lone Tree Police Chief Kirk Wilson said.

“It’s been around for decades — if not from the beginning of law enforcement,” he said. “It’s not easy to solve and it’s not even really a law enforcement problem. It’s a community problem.”

Numbers don’t tell whole story

Castle Rock Police Chief Jack Cauley says there’s no doubt officers are handling more mental health calls today than they did 30 years ago.

Numbers on exactly how many of the county’s tens of thousands of calls are related to mental health issues are unclear — each department tracks calls in different ways. And sometimes, officers are dispatched on calls not flagged as a mental health issue, only to learn upon arrival the disturbance is the result of a mental health condition.

Lone Tree, for instance, does not track the exact number of mental health calls, Sgt. Tim Beals said. But it did place individuals on mental health holds 48 times in 2017. Parker police does track them: They responded to at least 222 mental health calls last year, spokesman Josh Hans said.

The Castle Rock Police Department said it doesn’t know how many mental health calls it had based on how its database is categorized. It does know, however, that officers responded to 250 calls involving suicidal or potentially suicidal people in 2017.

“But that number,” Cauley said, “doesn’t represent the number of people that we handle or come into contact with on a daily basis on a number of other types of calls.”

Every mental health call looks different, officers say, and whatever the situation may be, it’s often difficult to immediately know whether mental health is the root problem or if some other issue is at hand, like a medical condition or sudden emotional crisis.

Brian Briggs, a deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, knows mental health issues well. He has worked in drug courts, in the county jail’s mental health pod and today serves on a specialized team in which he responds to mental health calls alongside a clinician.

Over his 20 years in law enforcement, Briggs said he has seen a culture shift in how the general public views mental illness — there is more tolerance and willingness to speak about the issue.

That shift has crossed over into the law enforcement field as well, he said, bringing more awareness and empathy.

“Twenty years ago, nobody would walk around saying they were depressed,” Briggs said. “It’s a culture shift society-wise and absolutely in law enforcement.”

That heightened empathy has helped improve how officers handle such calls, he said, but the complexity of mental health means situations are always different and often present unexpected challenges.

‘Hardly any place to help people’

Among the factors that make responding to mental health calls more challenging has been the gradual, but consistent, decrease in community programs and resources for the mentally ill, law enforcement officials say.

The respected CIRCLE Program, for instance, which was previously run out of the state’s largest referral hospital in Pueblo to treat people with mental illness and addiction, temporarily closed last summer because of staffing shortages. Although a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services said it may soon reopen, Briggs named the closure as a big loss for the mental health system.

“There is hardly any place to help people anymore,” said Briggs, who also noted that lack of insurance or the wrong kind of insurance often keeps the mentally ill from finding care at facilities.

The trend of dwindling resources dates back to the 1960s, following a national campaign to de-institutionalize the mental health system that in the long run created a major gap in programs and facilities to help those with mental illness, law enforcement and mental health experts say.

“They didn’t go anywhere; we didn’t fix them,” said Patrick Fox, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Human Services. “We just moved them to another place.”

MORE: Cultural shift affecting jail populations

The expense of running such programs also has contributed to the problem.

“It’s no surprise that you’re trying to find ways to treat people humanely in a less expensive way,” said Neil Gowensmith, director of the Denver Forensic Institute for Research, Service and Training at the University of Denver. “But that just hasn’t happened yet.”

De-institutionalization lasted until roughly 10 years ago, when lawsuits began demanding higher capacity at hospitals, Gowensmith said. Now, he added, mental health authorities, state hospital administrators and legislators must secure the funding to make that happen.

Until the problem is fully resolved, however, what this means for law enforcement, Spurlock said, is fewer places to take the mentally ill encountered by officers.

Training, new programs offer solutions

To help their officers understand and better handle situations involving mental illness, law enforcement agencies in Douglas County and across the nation are not only focusing on training their officers on mental health issues but also are creating innovative programs that meld the law enforcement and mental health fields.

The Crisis Intervention Team, commonly called CIT, is an internationally recognized program that the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Parker, Lone Tree and Castle Rock police departments say is critical training for their officers.

“We think equipping every patrol officer with this knowledge can only enhance their ability to help residents during a crisis event,” Parker Police Chief David King said.

MORE: Officers training to de-escalate a mental health situations

Anne Mosbach, coordinator for the Douglas County Mental Health InitiativeThe program is the “gold standard” in policing the mentally ill, said Anne Mosbach, coordinator for the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative, a coalition of 37 partner organizations working to fill the gaps in the county’s mental health resources.

The course teaches law enforcement how to recognize and build rapport with a mentally ill person. Throughout the training, panels of people with mental health conditions explain to officers what it’s like to be in psychosis, and professional actors provide role-playing exercises so officers can practice de-escalation techniques. The goal is that officers will be able to communicate effectively enough that the mentally ill person will willingly accept resources or treatment, preventing the need to forcibly detain or place the person in jail or at the emergency room.

“My first scenario was a girl in a car crying ... with a knife to her neck, and they were like, ‘OK, go de-escalate that,’ ” Briggs said of his CIT training in 2003.

CIT decreases law enforcement’s use of force when interacting with the mentally ill, bringing it lower than 5 percent in some departments, said Dara Rampersad, a CIT expert who has served on the international board of directors for CIT International.

Briggs understands first-hand how CIT training can affect a situation’s outcome.

He still remembers the gun-wielding Vietnam War veteran he came across about 15 years ago when responding to reports of gunfire on a rural Douglas County property.

He and a partner found a man, likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, bunkered down inside a crawl space beneath his home, convinced he was in a war zone surrounded by enemy troops.

“The first thing we saw was a gun coming out from under the crawl space,” Briggs said.

They spent 20 minutes behind a shield convincing him he was safe and he could put down the weapon. Once he did, they rushed him. There was a gun. The situation was tactical.

Today, rushing the man wouldn’t happen, Briggs said. CIT teaches officers to talk a person through his or her psychosis, calm them down and encourage them to willingly accept help.

Joining forces

Law enforcement agencies in Douglas County and across the country also are embracing programs that pair officers with mental health professionals to respond to mental health calls.

Co-responder programs developed in Los Angeles and San Diego pair law enforcement with behavioral health specialists to intervene on mental health-related calls. Arvada, Littleton and Parker are among those using these two-person teams already, but more will launch in Colorado communities this year.

Detective Tyler Herman with the Parker Police Department spearheaded its co-responder program, implemented last June. His involvement comes from a passion for helping the mentally ill.

“We owe it to them to get the best shot at getting better,” Herman said.

The Colorado Department of Human Services in January announced financial awards to help communities with co-responder teams expand their services and support several more looking to begin co-responder programs.

Castle Rock police and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office have Community Response Teams, or CRTs, in place.

Through the CRT program, a law enforcement officer and a clinician work together in a patrol car for a full 40-hour week. Case managers also accompany the CRT on some calls, and paramedics are on call to respond if needed. In some cases, a mentally ill person is transferred to a facility for treatment, and in others, they are treated on-scene and allowed to stay in their homes.

Additionally, the CRT crews conduct follow-up interviews with anyone they meet to ensure they continue going to therapy and taking medications.

The CRT started in Castle Rock in early 2017 with a pilot team jointly operated by the Castle Rock Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. A second team was added in December. The program was organized by the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative and modeled after a similar program in Colorado Springs. To date, it has worked with 259 individuals, making contact with them nearly 600 times through 911 calls, referrals or follow-up visits. From May to August 2017, 60 percent of people treated by the pilot CRT team were stabilized on-scene, according to Douglas County’s website.

“It’s an extremely beneficial program, providing resources and connection to resources for the community,” said Amanda Throckmorton, a Castle Rock police officer with a background in psychology who helped pilot the CRT.

Briggs agreed: “It’s putting the clinicians on-scene to do the assessments. That’s why CRT is revolutionary.”

Looking forward

Law enforcement has clearly taken more ownership in helping the mentally ill, even if that wasn’t its original role, said Mosbach of the Mental Health Initiative.

“As much as there are parts of the system that really need to be more supported,” she said, “I have seen a greater compassion.”

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But training and new police-based programs — and more compassion — aren’t the only solutions to the challenges that officers deal with on a daily basis, law enforcement and mental health professionals say.

And many of the problems, they say, funnel down to the same hurdle — finding the money to fund treatment programs or other resources in the community.

“I think it’s hard not to talk about funding in these conversations,” said Mosbach, noting how treatment providers struggle to keep up with demand for services.

Funding for the mental health system is “clearly a major point of contention and a major gap,” Gowensmith said. When competing for money against issues like public safety, transportation or tax reform, “it just loses out.”

But it needs to start winning, officials say.

Briggs recalls a dozen mentally ill people who came and went five to seven times each during the years he spent working in the county jail, between 2009 and 2012.

People weren’t getting adequate treatment — they were just getting out, he said. “That’s when I learned this is not working as a system.”

For Sheriff Tony Spurlock, the issue became even more personal the day his deputy died.

In late January, Spurlock sat in a sheriff’s office conference room, reflecting on the shooting and the mental health system as a whole. Mental illness shouldn’t be criminalized, he said, but those with mental health conditions keep landing in his jail.

“I could take you down to my jail right now and show you inmates who should not be here,” he said.

That frustrates him. One day he hopes the trend will change, but like many officials in the state, Spurlock said he has no perfect answer.

“In some cases, like the murder of Zack Parrish, there is no doubt that the killer had a mental issue,” Spurlock said. “It’s a constant battle to try and do the right thing for these people and to try and provide public safety for the other folks that are just passing through and passing through life.”

Time to Talk, Douglas Cunty Sheriff's Department, mental health, SWAT, Tony Spurlock


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