Community groups will begin taking on 911 calls and low-level cases from the Denver DA

A pilot project that will likely begin within a year aims to dispatch civilian-led teams to handle cases involving mental health crises and addiction.
9 min. read
A police officer conducts a sobriety test on East Colfax Avenue, Sept. 4, 2015. (Kevin J. Beaty)

While Denverites were grilling out on Memorial Day weekend, a delegation from the city was in Eugene, Oregon, riding along with a civilian-led team who take specific 911 calls instead of local police.

The Oregon program is called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, known simply as CAHOOTS. Teams of mental health workers and EMTs respond to emergencies that aren't criminal matters, like overdoses and situations when people might be likely to hurt themselves. It's been in operation there for 30 years, and now stakeholders are working to bring the program to Denver.

Rep. Leslie Herod, one of the delegation, recalled one of the situations she witnessed during her visit.

She traveled with a team to a home in a middle-class neighborhood where a man had locked himself in a bathroom with box cutters and threatened suicide. They found his family waiting for help in panic.

"It was definitely a multi-generational mental health and addiction issue," she said.

They talked to him through the door for a half-hour but had no luck coaxing him to exit. That's when police did show up. They got him out of the bathroom and took the knives.

Herod remembered the man asking if he was going to jail.

"They said, 'No, we're not going to take you to jail. We want you to talk to CAHOOTS,'" she said. "Once law enforcement secured the scene, CAHOOTS stepped in."

The cops left, and the civilian team spent time speaking to the man. They convinced him take a counseling appointment and he was allowed to stay home after the four-hour call concluded. His family, she recalled, was "more than relieved."

"I'm just glad I have someone I can talk to," he said.

This, Herod said, demonstrates the power of alternatives to traditional law enforcement. In a city without a diversion system like Denver, a person in crisis would likely spend "a costly night" in jail or the emergency room, places Herod has described as the de facto solutions for mental health breakdowns. Worse, that person might be left alone to deal with their demons, only to commit an actual violent crime later on.

"People are breaking," she said, and Denver is not equipped to help them at the moment. "We have to make sure we are getting them access to the services that they need."

The Eugene delegation included representatives from the Denver Police Department, the Mental Health Center of Denver, the Harm Reduction Action Center, Servicios de la Raza, Roshan Bliss from the Denver Justice Project, Vinnie Cervantes from the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response and Herod, who spearheaded the city's Caring 4 Denver ballot initiative last November.

Bliss said he and his colleague Alex Landau have been pushing for the city to adopt a similar model for years. They approached Chief Paul Pazen when he was still a commander in northwest Denver.

"Pazen was super into it," he remembered, "and then Pazen became the chief."

Not two weeks after he was sworn in, they followed up to see if he would still be interested in pursuing a program like CAHOOTS. Pazen was still on board, and planning for the trip began.

Denver County Court's Presiding Judge, Theresa A. Spahn, swears Commander Paul Pazen as police chief inside Denver's City and County Building, July 9, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Pazen told Denverite that the department is "very excited" to help roll out a pilot program. It will begin in a few targeted neighborhoods to evaluate how it works and how it might be tweaked. Like in Eugene, civilian teams will likely have access to the city's 911 dispatch system and take calls as they can. There's not yet a firm timeline, but Pazen said he and community stakeholders will be moving as quickly as they can, while still taking care to get it right.

"I would not stand for it taking a year to get our pilot off the ground," he said.

Cervantes, who recently founded the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response -- or DASHR -- said his organization will likely be the umbrella overseeing the pilot project. The alliance was created as a conglomerate of nonprofits and community groups working together to push progressive criminal justice reforms. In addition to a CAHOOTS diversion model, they're also working with District Attorney Beth McCann to transfer some of her office's low-level prosecutions into a restorative justice program that will allow offenses to be handled inside the community and out of jail. The details of that program are expected to be announced this summer.

The DASHR team has been speaking to Mayor Michael Hancock's administration about how they might secure $2.5 million from the city's safety budget. Part of that would go to the CAHOOTS-modeled pilot to buy and equip two vehicles and fund staff positions. Servicios de la Raza, a long-standing organization in the city that manages part of Denver's jail re-entry program, will help oversee DASHR's growth and use of funds.

Cervantes said the city's program won't perfectly mirror Eugene's. One reason is that Denver is just so much larger. Another is that Eugene has more resources and places to take people in crisis. Denver, for instance, lacks a dedicated mental healthcare facility. It's one of the needs that Herod pushed in her Caring 4 Denver campaign. The program will raise $45 million through sales tax, and building a facility could be one of the ways they'll spend the money. It's possible they'll also offer grants to DASHR to run their civilian response team.

Vinnie Cervantes attends an overdose reversal training at the Harm Reduction Action Center, June 1, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Ruth Kanatser leads the training. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Ben Brubaker, executive director of the White Bird Clinic that runs Eugene's CAHOOTS program, said Denver is right to start their own diversion system now, despite the fact that surrounding infrastructure might be limited. Eugene's program only diverts people to other resource providers 30 or 40 percent of the time. Their focus is to stabilize people where they are and let them stay there.

And, he added, starting with "eyes on the ground" means mental healthcare advocates will have a better understanding of where those infrastructure gaps are. When it's time to start funding a healthcare or sobering center, they'll know more about the people they hope to serve.

In addition to people facing mental breakdowns, Denver's program will also respond to situations involving addiction and people living on the street.

Denver's effort is about addressing problems that have been shoehorned into the criminal justice system, but Bliss added that it's also crucial in addressing issues of police shootings.

"This sort of system would mean that probably somebody like Alonzo Ashley or Paul Childs or Paul Castaway would be alive," he said.

Ashley died after he was tazed at the Denver Zoo in 2011 when police responded to a domestic disturbance incident between him and his girlfriend. Childs was shot to death when a Denver Police officer responded in 2005 after the "developmentally disabled teen" made threats over the phone to his former mother-in-law. Castaway was shot and killed by Denver Police in 2015 after the mentally-ill man's mother called 911 while he was having a "manic episode."

"Nationwide," Bliss told Denverite, "a huge portion of people who have been actully shot and killed by police either had mental heath issues or were in the middle of a mental health crisis."

It's one reason why he feels so strongly about instituting a civilian-led, non-police response system for these kinds of calls.

"They are actually helpers who are there to help, they don't have badges and are unarmed," he said. The informal hoodies and jeans Eugene's teams wear signal de-escalation, even as they approach.

Police have tools to deal with criminals, but Bliss feels they're less effective when it comes to these more nuanced situations: "When you're holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Roshan Bliss poses for a portrait, June 8, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Pazen said his officers do know how to handle these delicate situations and they've been working on better approaching people who need help. In 2016, the department began a program with the Mental Health Center of Denver to provide mental health workers as "co-responders" who assist with these kinds of calls.

"We deal with this every single day, and we deal with it quite successfully," he said. But, he added, "Our goal is not to try to do this by ourselves. ... If there are better ways, if we can get more people involved, if we can get additional community members to help us with this, we believe that would enhance our ability."

While Bliss says the community needs a civilian group's protection from the police, those civilian teams will also rely on the police to stay safe.

Brubaker said many of his employees were hired because they had lived experience with the streets, and they're very careful on the job.

But if something goes wrong, he said, "police are readily available for us."

Reps. Leslie Herod and Matt Soper make the case for their bond reform measure before the state House, April 19, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Herod, who sponsored a number of progressive criminal justice bills in the legislature this year, said bringing better care to the city will take collaboration between law enforcement and those who seek to reform the system.

"I'm thankful we have the right players at the table," she said. "We're just scratching the surface"

Update: Servicios de la Raza was added to the list of organizations that visited Eugene and their role in overseeing DASHR was clarified in this story.

Correction: Roshan Bliss' comment about "hammers" and "nails" was updated with the word "problems," which was missed in the original transcription.

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