Pueblo Police Chief Chris Noeller said he knew the Crisis Intervention Team, a partnership between Health Solutions and the Pueblo Police Department, was a success when he found that any officer in the department was willing to ride with a clinician.
The CIT program was started in 2016 in response to rising mental health calls, said Jason Chippeaux, CEO of Health Solutions.
“Our department tries to be very progressive in how we deal with issues within the community,” Noeller said.
“Former chief Troy Davenport saw an opportunity for us to bring in people who had skills we did not have, in order to help people in mental health crisis. We started seeing an increase in mental health calls around 2013-2014 and we were looking for ways to put us into a position to help individuals in ways we normally can’t as police officers —sending someone to jail is not necessarily what needs to happen if someone is in a mental health crisis.”
Around that time, Health Solutions approached the police with the idea of a co-responder model, and the CIT program was born.
“We started with a very small team,” Chippeaux said. “Some of the unique features that the CIT team brings to Pueblo is that they’re riding along with police officers during their shift. There is a therapist in the car to be available as a resource to the officer should they encounter a call that’s presenting with behavioral health components.”
“Sending someone to jail is not necessarily what needs to happen if someone is in a mental health crisis.”
– Pueblo Police Chief Chris Noeller
CIT clinicians are trained mental health professionals from Health Solutions who go through the same training as Pueblo police officers, minus certain elements like firearms training.
“Both the department and Health Solutions understood the cultural difference that can be present between a public safety lens and a behavioral health lens,” Chippeaux said. “We wanted to bring those cultures together, so having them go through the academy with the soon-to-be law enforcement officers has really helped do that — that’s unique to Pueblo as far as I know.”
The co-responder helps offer additional tools to deal with certain situations that, in the past, may have led to the use of force, Noeller said.
“Suicide is one call where officers without specialized training or tools, or assistance of someone like a co-responder therapist, we’re limited on what our options are. Use of force, in the past, was often employed to bring someone down, or into custody, taken to the hospital and placed under hold.”
Meanwhile, he said, CIT clinicians have training and skills that officers do not have in interacting with those individuals, allowing lower levels of force.
Currently, there are five clinicians for around 200 officers, with two case managers to provide back-end follow-ups such as making sure contacted individuals get connected to appropriate resources and making sure they go to appointments, Chippeaux said.
“From a Health Solutions lens, this program is critical,” he said.
“Often the first contact we have is through the law enforcement system. To be able to respond on scene, one, it declutters what happens on the law enforcement side, you can get the right service applied to the right issue. Rather than trying to use a screwdriver to hammer a nail, you can actually use a hammer. From an efficiency standpoint, it connects us immediately with a client, and early intervention is paramount in terms of long-term recovery.
“It also provides an opportunity potentially to keep these folks out of a legal scenario that will hinder or complicate receiving long-term care. Often we can de-escalate to a point where further legal action isn’t necessary.”
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Noeller said police officers, who spend countless hours in their patrol vehicles, tend to dislike having others tag along.
“Their car is their office,” he said. “That would be like me coming to your office and sitting with you for eight hours. It gets old real fast.”
When the program began, Noeller said the department had a list of about 10 officers willing to take a clinician.
“Now, you hear many times a day over the radio, ‘Does anyone have a CIT clinician?’ So we’re actively using them every day. When they’re not there or tied up on another call, you can hear it in the voice of the officer going, ‘OK, I have to deal with this without the extra help and knowledge .’ “
Noeller also pointed to the program having a bigger impact on contacted individuals, better community relations and a reduction in time spent on mental health calls, due to a clinician’s expertise.
The biggest limiting factor to hiring more clinicians is money, Chippeaux said.
In 2021, the city of Pueblo awarded the program some funding from the American Rescue Plan. While Chippeaux said he didn’t know how much the program costs on an annual basis, a single master-level therapist generally costs around $100,000 including salary and benefits, he said.
Noeller stressed the importance of the program, saying a high number of the calls police respond to have mental health components.
“Throughout my 29 years in law enforcement, the number of mental health calls we get called on has continued to build. And this partnership, having these resources, is crucial, especially when everything we do is scrutinized.”
Questions, comments, or story tips? Contact Justin at Jreuterterma@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayreutter1.