Durango has changed the way it responds to mental health and other noncriminal emergencies.
The Durango Police Department and Axis Health System teamed up to create CORE, or Co-Response Program, which launched in late February.
Typically, the two disciplines only collaborate when a crisis needs emergency attention. But the CORE team – a law officer and a crisis clinician – has resources at hand to better support Durango community members.
“I’m really encouraged that it will be seen as support,” said Molly Rodriguez, Axis Health acute treatment unit clinical manager. “At some point, I wouldn’t be surprised if the community starts asking for them specifically.”
The team responds to behavioral health crises, which encompass 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, said Durango Police Sergeant Tim Dixon, who helped organize the partnership.
Dixon first heard about the Oregon program, called CAHOOTS, in 2019.
In summer 2020, the timing was right for the department to pursue a similar type of program. That’s in part because of nationwide calls for police reform during protests and demonstrations over the summer.
“The climate that was happening at the time – we were taking advantage of that to move forward with this program,” Dixon said. “But we also think it’s the right program for this time.”
Now, when Matt Teague, a social worker with Axis Health System, goes to work, he’s not with other counselors or a regular schedule of patients. He joins DPD Officer Forrest Kinney in a patrol vehicle.
The team conducts four 10-hour shifts each week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the peak hours for noncriminal behavioral health crises, according to Durango police data. As the program scales up, CORE teams will operate seven days a week.
Teague saw the program as an innovative way to use emergency services while providing adequate treatment for someone in a crisis and connecting them with services more quickly.
“I hadn’t heard of very many other programs like this before. Having worked on the crisis team for a while, I saw a huge need for it,” Teague said.
Kinney said it was an opportunity to take a different approach to things that frustrated him as a patrol officer, such as having a short amount of time to respond to complex problems.
“This is the future of policing,” Kinney said. “Being able to be part of it at the ground floor is exciting.”
A month into the program, the team members spend their shifts driving around waiting to respond to calls or performing administrative duties.
They respond to three to four calls a day, including calls related to suicidal individuals and welfare checks.
While call volume is not high, it offers the team a unique opportunity to spend more time on each call, Kinney said.
“The major difference between this role and being a patrol officer is the amount of time it takes to complete a call,” Kinney said.
Emergency calls are always piling up for patrol officers, so they have limited time to address one call before they need to help out with others, he said. The CORE team can offer a more tailored approach to the complex situations to which they respond – spending up to two hours assisting people during a call.
They also follow up after the team’s visit to help the person access resources and services.
The fact that this program is developing in a small, rural police department is “very significant,” Dixon said. But that comes with challenges. Rural departments often have fewer resources than a bigger metropolitan area, he said.
For example, the department recently had a grant application denied. The funding would have purchased a vehicle specifically for CORE so the team did not have to respond to calls in a police cruiser.
Having a vehicle is an important tool for CORE, said Teague and Kinney. Durango police need cruisers for their regular duties. A separate vehicle would also help them address stigma and resistance, particularly when someone does not want a cruiser in front of their house or associates negative experiences with the police.
“We’re super rural out here. We don’t have as many resources as a lot of other places,” Teague said. “Having good communication between community partners fills that gap or resources a little bit more.”
Funding is another issue. The city of Durango, the primary funding source for the program, approved $181,684 for 2021 as part of a contract with Axis to provide two clinicians. (DPD is fully staffed so officers are assigned to the team.) That funding also helps the organizations have enough staffing capacity to implement the program, Rodriguez said.
But organizers are unsure what future finances will look like after this year, Dixon said.
“I do like the level of commitment I’m seeing out of the City Council and department heads with the city and Axis Health System,” he said.
Durango Police Department and Axis said connecting people to resources could help with long-term problem-solving or help divert people away from the legal system.
Durango and Axis hope those resource connections before a crisis will also reduce the number of times officers have to transport people to medical resources as a result of a crisis.
Axis and DPD plan to evaluate the program’s progress by analyzing data already being collected by the police department. They can also track the calls addressed by the CORE team.
“This setting and this team is able to approach these problems and really give them the attention they deserve,” Kinney said. “Mental health and all of that stuff that we’re dealing with is a big part of what patrol has to deal with, but it’s not always done adequately because the resources just haven’t been there.”