Heather Willard / NewsBreak Denver / May 18, 2023
(Douglas County, Colo.) In 2021, nearly 20% of Douglas County residents experienced a mental health condition, according to the Colorado Health Access Survey. These issues varied from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia and developmental disabilities.
When many of those individuals experience a crisis and call 911 — or have someone call on their behalf — law enforcement usually answers the call.
“It’s every day,” said Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Zach Zepeski.
To combat these issues and provide better support and care for these community members, the Douglas County government and Douglas County Sheriff’s Office created Community Response Teams. However, a lesser-known but common training is ensuring every deputy patrolling Douglas County has the skills to recognize mental illness and de-escalate situations.
Corporal Colleen Herringshaw works mainly in the Douglas County Detention Facility and has been the lead director for the Douglas County crisis intervention training (CIT) program since 2017. She said CIT is essential not just for patrol but also for detention deputies. Many of the individuals entering custody experience mental health or substance abuse issues, leading to erratic behavior.
“We have various presenters that come into our class and they present mental health awareness,” Herringshaw said. “So anything from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia to bipolar and personality disorders…substance abuse, autism, elder issues like Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as wellness for the officers.”
Herringshaw explained that each topic is presented during the 40-hour class taken over a five-day period. After getting some basic knowledge through classroom presentations, students are tasked with scenarios performed by professional actors. Herringshaw said this allows students to connect the dots and put what they learned to practical use.
She also said the program has evolved over the past decade to meet the community’s changing needs.
“We’ve had veteran’s affairs come in, homeless issues as well, and then the presenters also offer resources and their perspectives,” Herringshaw said. “If we could, it could be a month long. But we teach this and then, I think the most important part, is the scenarios. It helps the students see what works, what may not work.”
Bob Froug is a clinician in the Community Response Team unit where he works hand-in-hand with Deputy Zepeski. The duo are also trained CIT coaches, which requires an extra day of training. The pair responds to active suicidal subjects, welfare checks, mental health calls, and non-criminal substance abuse calls. They also check up on “repeat clients,” or individuals that commonly call 911 for mental health, building trust and rapport.
Froug said the goal is to destigmatize mental health issues or anyone who may be experiencing a crisis.
“The beauty of the CRT model is destigmatizing — it’s OK, you’re OK just the way you are,” Froug said. “Most of what we do is on a voluntary basis.”
Froug relayed a recent call where the family explained the individual was in crisis, but they could not afford the ambulance ride. Zapeski and Froug were able to get the individual where they were safe — without saddling the family with medical debt.
“In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t be on the CRT team if it wasn’t for the CIT course,” said Deputy Zach Zepeski. “I love to talk to people, but getting the skills to talk to people in crisis really is what helped me earn the position I am in now.”
Froug explained that CRT units will respond to calls or provide check-ups in unmarked vehicles, allowing the individual to retain some anonymity and dignity. CRT units are also authorized to provide transportation and resources to citizens, with very little restriction. This means if an acute mental health bed opens and an individual needs it, Froug and Zepeski can transport the individual to wherever the bed is located — like Pueblo.
Zepeski said the combined CRT and CIT efforts have allowed many incidents to remain civil and keep individuals out of jail, or from further consequences in jail.
Herringshaw agreed. She said deputies trained in crisis intervention can stop an inmate from escalating into a crisis state in what Herringshaw estimated as approximately 90-95% of situations.
The program has also expanded into Youth Community Response Teams, which have expanded to now cover every school in the Douglas County School District.
According to Herringshaw, about 65% of all deputies have completed the training. She explained that new recruits often don’t have the training, and it takes some time to get everyone certified.
People who need immediate support for a mental health crisis can call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-TALK(8255) or text TALK to 38255. Trained counselors are available 24/7/365 to work with persons in crisis and the people supporting them.