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Bennet bill seeks to strengthen community policing while supporting those in crisis

Legislation would dedicate funding for police to work with outreach teams
Axis Health System social worker Matt Teague and Durango Police Department Officer Forrest Kinney are part of the CORE, or Co-Response Program, team. They respond to mental health and other noncriminal emergencies. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Sen. Michael Bennet introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday to improve community policing and fund partnerships between law enforcement and local responders such as mental health professionals.

The Supporting Mental Assistance Responder Teams (SMART) Community Policing Act would provide dedicated funding for law enforcement to be connected with case managers, mental health professionals and outreach team members who are more adequately suited to help people experiencing homelessness or mental health crises.

The program would build on programs such as Grand Junction’s Co-Responder Unit. The Co-Responder Unit was started in 2018 and is made up of two police officers and two therapists from a local counseling provider and deals with calls related to mental or behavioral health and helps provide resources to someone who may be in crisis.

“Community policing is an essential part of our response to the rise of crime in our country,” Bennet said in a news release Wednesday. “It allows law enforcement to focus on violent crimes and lets local responders respond to people experiencing mental health crises or drug addiction.”

Bennet’s bill would pair a mental health clinician with a paramedic or EMT to respond to certain low-risk 911 calls, train crisis workers to respond to service calls, provide mental health services to those in crisis, stabilize encounters between people in crisis and law enforcement officers, and connect people with resources to address their issues. Additionally, the bill would implement case management teams to follow up with people and help develop specific solutions to reduce repeat interactions with emergency services.

In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Bennet emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach to responding to crises, which includes professionals trained to do so, rather than relying solely on police officers. By doing that, police officers are able to spend more time preventing crime and improving public safety, as well as connecting those in crisis with the resources they need.

“I view this as one more area where Colorado offers a model for the country to take on the rise in crime in a smart and thoughtful way,” Bennet said in his speech.

Grand Junction’s Co-Responder team has answered more than 3,200 calls from people in crisis, according to the police department’s website.

Axis Health System social worker Matt Teague, right, and Durango Police Department Officer Seth Karr are members of the CORE, or Co-Response Program, team. They make contact with an individual July 15, 2021, while on patrol in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The Durango Police Department has a Joint Co-Responder Program that pairs law enforcement with crisis specialist to assist community members experiencing behavioral health crises.

Summit County and Denver also have successful community policing models; Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program uses emergency response teams that include EMTs and behavioral health clinicians who help people who may be in crisis as a result of substance abuse, mental health issues, poverty or homelessness. In Summit County, the System-wide Mental Assessment Response Team (SMART) program is made up of teams of police officers and behavioral health specialists who work together to respond to police calls about mental health situations.

“Colorado’s model proves that community policing can help de-escalate encounters and connect people in crisis with the mental health services or other support they need,” Bennet said. “My legislation draws on Colorado’s leadership to help communities nationwide develop similar programs to strengthen public safety.”

​​Nina Heller is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at nheller@durangoherald.com.

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