GRAND JUNCTION, Colo.- For the past two years, the Grand Junction Police Department has operated a co-responder unit which brings one police officer and one social worker out on calls responding to someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
The whole unit is made up of four people, two GJPD officers, and two therapists from Mind Springs Health in Grand Junction. Mind Springs is a large mental health facility on the Western Slope.
Since this program began in 2018, the unit has responded to over 5300 calls, according to the GJPD, and hands-on force has only needed to be used three times to prevent a person from harming themselves or others, and less lethal means have only needed to be used 2 times in similar situations.
Officer Kristine Gregory has been on the co-responder unit since it was formed in 2018 after a grant from the state. It’s a full time job with the goal of getting people in mental distress the resources they need.
“Depending on the day it’s hard to say, there are some days where you have two to three calls if that and then there are days where you go nonstop with 10 calls,” Gregory said.
Gregory says each GJPD officer receives 40 hours of crisis intervention training, but the co-responder unit is designed to keep regular officers on the streets responding to criminal calls, and go above and beyond when a call is made to dispatch about a mental health crisis.
“Unfortunately here in the Valley we have a very high suicide rate compared to the national average,” Gregory said. “Law enforcement gets the calls for these mental health and suicide (incidents), and it’s just not something regular law enforcement is often trained for.”
Michelle Hoy, one of the directors at Mind Springs, says this unit fills a void in policing.
“It’s really difficult if not impossible to expect a police officer to become a mental health professional,” Hoy said.
Hoy says the key to the co-responder unit’s success is treating people on the spot. Of the 2000 crisis calls since 2018 where the co-responder unit provided services, about 75 percent were treated at the site of the call, and didn’t require transport to any mental health or medical facilities.
“Treating somebody in the place where you meet them and really being able to de-escalate a situation 70 percent of the time is a great statistic versus cuffing them and taking them to jail the emergency room,” Hoy said.
Officer Gregory says the goal is to avoid detaining someone unless absolutely necessary.
“Everything from the beginning is your mannerisms, your tone, your body language, the words you choose,” Gregory said. “The way you interact with the subject, you tell them straight away, ‘I’m part of the co-responder team, i’m not here for anything criminal.'”
Gregory also says, without this unit, use of force could be more prevalent when responding to mental health crises.
“The subtleties of the mental health side help out-weight that, and you don’t have a use of force incident you don’t need to have.”