Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders Are Growing Problems in Colorado—Pairing Police with Mental Health Professionals Could Help

The Denver Post

By Christopher N. Osher

Colorado is pushing for new approaches to how police officers handle cases involving mental illness and drug addiction, encouraging them to steer low-level offenders toward treatment rather than jail and giving them assistance in dealing with potentially dangerous situations.

In one tactic, mental health professionals ride with officers during 911 responses and some routine patrols. In another, local communities place case managers into high-crime areas to help police keep drug users, prostitutes and other offenders out of the criminal justice system.

Several law enforcement agencies in Colorado already are using these strategies. The Colorado Department of Human Services is pushing further, planning to distribute $16 million over the next three years to support such efforts. The state will award $5.3 million this month. As many as 12 police departments could use the money to emphasize treatment over incarceration.

“For Colorado, this is a brand new way of thinking,” said Jagruti Shah, director of criminal justice services for the human services department. “What you currently are seeing with a lot of these individuals with behavioral health issues is they keep circling. You have law enforcement addressing mental health and substance-use issues as opposed to patrolling and stopping crime.”

Similar initiatives in Los Angeles and Seattle have drawn praise from criminologists and treatment providers. In some instances, the new philosophy could result in drug offenders learning to use clean needles as opposed to continuing to share dirty needles that can cause infections and spread diseases. In other instances, those more receptive to intervention could be steered toward job training, new housing, and treatment for schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders.

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