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Can police and mental health workers really team up? In Durango, the answer is yes

Cross-disciplinary team pairs law enforcement with social workers to de-escalate conflicts
Axis Health System social worker Matt Teague, right, and Durango Police Department Officer Seth Karr make contact with a person last week as part of the new CORE, or Co-Response Program, team. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

On a regular day at work, Matt Teague and Forrest Kinney hop into a Durango Police Department patrol vehicle. The car is outfitted with the typical police gear – a dispatch radio, weapons, safety equipment – but also a teddy bear, bottled water and blankets.

Teague, a social worker, and Kinney, a police officer, focus on a unique approach to emergency response that combines mental health care with policing.

“The goal is treatment, mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment,” Teague said. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as getting assistance through Manna (soup kitchen) or housing assistance.”

More than 100 days into the program, the team seems to be meeting its goal and is looking into expansion – as long as funding can be secured to continue in 2022.

The Durango Police Department and Axis Health System teamed up to launch CORE, or Co-Response Program, in late February. Typically, the two disciplines collaborate only when a crisis needs emergency attention. But the CORE team has tailored resources to better support Durango community members.

“Even on days when the call load might not be necessarily very heavy, we're still checking in on people and building those relationships,” said Kinney, 28. “Making sure that they know that we're always a resource.”

The cross-disciplinary team responds to behavioral health crises, which can include mental health, substance use and social issues, such as homelessness and interpersonal family conflicts.

The idea is based on similar cross-disciplinary programs around the country, like those in Denver, Longmont, Grand Junction and Eugene, Oregon.

The team’s primary duties include responding to emergency calls relayed through dispatch, patrolling the city of Durango and writing up reports – similar to most patrol units with the Durango Police Department.

But they take more time to work with people. During an emergency response, their immediate goal is to see if the person is a danger to themselves or others. Then they help the person access treatment and resources.

Matt Teague, left, a social worker with Axis Health System, and Forrest Kinney, center, a Durango Police Department officer, sort through care items in the back of the patrol vehicle used by the CORE team. (Shannon Mullane/Durango Herald)

A big part of their job is to follow up with people from past calls.

“A lot of times interventions are most successful over a couple of days, not just one single intervention,” said Teague, 27, as an emergency call crackled across the scanner last week. The team was doing its route through Durango’s business, residential and downtown areas.

“They’re more receptive to treatment, more receptive to just talking to us and reaching out for help,” he said.

One of their tasks last week was to check on a vehicle parked near a gas station on U.S. Highway 160 in west Durango. A woman had to leave it there after a recent contact with the CORE team, and she was worried someone would break into it.

Other patrol officers might recognize a situation needs the CORE team response and call Teague and Kinney for assistance. Sometimes, the team just stops and says hello to someone or asks about an upcoming treatment appointment to help build a relationship with that person.

“I think a lot of patrol officers are grateful for this team because they’re tough situations that can take some extra time to sort out,” Kinney said. “Especially when the department has been as busy as it has recently, they’re grateful to be able to call someone who knows how to deal with it.”

Axis Health System social worker Matt Teague and Durango Police Department Officer Forrest Kinney are part of the new CORE, or Co-Response Program, team. They were ready last week to respond to mental health and other noncriminal emergencies. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
What do the numbers say?

Since February, the team has responded to 176 calls as of last week. It has followed up with people 154 times.

Most of the time, the CORE team is helping men between ages 31 and 50. About 60 women have been helped, compared with 115 men.

Durango police wanted to shift the response to behavioral health resources and away from a purely legal/criminal system response, said Cmdr. Jacob Dunlop.

“We feel it has immediately been successful,” he said.

The Axis and DPD team is tracking the number of calls coming in and how the interaction goes. The majority of people, 99, are treated in place. Four have refused service and four have been arrested.

The purpose of collecting the data is twofold: to determine how the program should expand and to apply for grant funding opportunities, said Molly Rodriguez, a clinical manager with Axis.

Already, the team has doubled. Now, two law officers and two Axis team members partner up on calls. The team expanded from a five-day schedule to operating seven days a week.

Soon, CORE staff members will also have a new vehicle to use, one that is a better fit for the cross-disciplinary program than the fully outfitted police cruiser. Purchasing the vehicle was made possible with the help of community contributions, the team said.

“I feel like it’s been going really positively,” Rodriguez said. “The impact the team has had on individuals, as well as the communities in which those individuals live, has anecdotally been really encouraging.”

2021 expiration date

Other groups are closely watching how the program progresses.

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office supported Durango’s pilot program. Data from the program will help inform how it should expand to the entire county, said Sheriff Sean Smith.

Some programs pair officers with clinicians. Others have a clinician-only unit responding to calls, he said.

“I absolutely agree we need something to address these types of calls, and I’m anxious to see what kind of data they create,” Smith said. “I’m excited for the Sheriff’s Office to participate in a program in the future.”

The City Council has not had a full report on the program yet, but City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy is interested to see how it progresses.

Although the police department was looking into a co-responder program before 2020, it ramped up its efforts in response to police reform protests and demonstrations over the summer.

Noseworthy serves as liaison to the Community Relations Commission, which became one of the city’s main ways to hear and respond to the community’s calls for more diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

“I was so pleased to see Chief (Bob) Brammer’s immediate willingness last year to set this program up and get it going,” Noseworthy said. “It’s operational, and they anticipate it increasing in the number of responses. It’s what we asked for, and they responded.”

She’s waiting to see how the program fits into the police department’s budget for 2022.

The program’s contract expires at the end of 2021. Both Axis and DPD want to see it continue, but it’s too soon to say exactly how funding will be allocated. The 2022 budget will be finalized in the fall.

“It’s been done in other communities very well, and I’m very pleased we’re initiating it here,” Noseworthy said.

The Community Relations Commission declined to respond with comment.

La Plata SURJ , which has joined in calls for police reform, said more can be done.

"While the DPD/Axis relationship may be a positive step in a less-flawed direction, it is but a small band aid covering a gaping wound in our society," wrote La Plata SURJ in an email to The Durango Herald. The group emphasized that the perspectives of Black and brown individuals needed to be prioritized.

Axis Health System social worker Matt Teague and Durango Police Department Officer Forrest Kinney said the CORE program is meeting its goals. From their on-the-ground perspective, people feel more comfortable with them and with pursuing treatment when applicable. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For Teague and Kinney, their approach is to take it one day at a time.

Kinney, who has been an officer since 2017, said police reform is always needed because communities are always changing.

“The community is always transitioning ... so if the police don’t reform, you’re not able to serve the community to the best of your abilities,” he said. “I think the fact there’s such a big demand for this is amazing.”

They’re encouraged to see individuals who are more responsive to pursuing treatment and more comfortable with the team.

“We take it day by day and try to do what we can just one day at a time,” Kinney said.

smullane@durangoherald.com

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