Durango Police Department is aiming to launch a new pilot program in January that reforms how it responds to mental health-related incidents.
The police department and Axis Health System are partnering on the program to create specialized co-response teams.
Funding is the biggest barrier, DPD representatives said. City Council authorized a grant application Tuesday, which is necessary to help the program get off the ground by January.
“We’re working feverishly right now with Axis mental health to ... see exactly what kind of personnel we need to hire, recruit and train prior to Jan. 1,” said Police Chief Bob Brammer.
In the pilot program, DPD and Axis would create two, two-person teams, each with a sworn officer and a licensed mental health clinician.
The team would respond to people in crisis because of mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness or any combination of those issues – about 10% of the department’s call load, DPD staff members said.
The clinicians will attempt to handle the call in a noncriminal manner, but a police officer would step in to secure the scene when necessary.
The program essentially provides another pillar of the emergency response system, said Haley Leonard Saunders, Axis Health System spokeswoman.
“This allows the right response at the right time – putting the appropriate resources for each type of call,” Leonard Saunders said.
One of the first steps is to outfit a vehicle, which does not look like the traditional police car, with the equipment required for incident response.
With City Council’s authorization, DPD can seek $59,000 in grant funding from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. The money would cover purchasing a Chrysler Pacifica van, outfitting it with a radio, barriers and other equipment. The grant would also help pay for an existing DPD peer support program, which provides training and counseling for officers.
The police department might be able to purchase an electric or hybrid vehicle, in line with council goals to convert the city’s entire vehicle fleet. Both councilors Barbara Noseworthy and Kim Baxter directed the officers to research that option.
“We’re just thrilled to be able to work with DPD on this co-response program,” Leonard Saunders said. “Right now, we’re in the development stages, working closely between our team, dispatch and DPD.”
DPD first proposed the pilot program to City Council in August in response to increased local crime rates and national protests sparked by several deaths of Black Americans caused by police.
Protesters called for social and policing reforms, such as repurposing money for police departments or defunding police entirely. Mayor Dean Brookie said this program was the city’s response.
“This is our response to, not necessarily unfund the police, but certainly unburden the need to have police interaction with noncriminal and nonviolent (incidents) and supplement that with the more appropriate mental health interaction,” he said. “I applaud you guys for responding to the needs of the community.”