A homeless encampment under the Boulder Public Library on Jan. 13, 2021. The city's Crisis Intervention Response Team, which pairs police with clinicians, responds to calls involving behavioral health crises. In roughly 25% of the cases the person involved is experiencing homelessness, according to a city report. Credit John Herrick

Earlier this year, Boulder’s licensed clinicians started joining the city’s police on calls involving people experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

From February to August, the city’s Crisis Intervention Response Team responded to 523 calls, according to a report released by the city last week summarizing the team’s response to calls for service. 

That’s about 39% of the 1,344 calls to police involving someone in crisis. Hundreds came in when clinicians were unavailable, according to the report. At times, the report said, vacancies on the four-person team limited its capacity to respond. 

The team works Monday to Friday 8 a.m.–10 p.m. and weekends 10 a.m.–8 p.m. It’s difficult to recruit clinicians to work daytime hours, the report said, and paying a premium to recruit them to work overnight might not be the best use of resources.

“Since the behavioral health need is so great in Boulder, as with most communities across the nation, there’s a broad range of needs, including additional clinicians for higher call volume times during days/evenings,” Wendy Schwartz, the policy manager for the city’s Housing and Human Services Department, wrote in an email to the Boulder Reporting Lab.

The staffing pinch is emblematic of a national labor shortage and general lack of mental health services across the state. The result is a slower rollout of one of the city’s several strategies to reform policing and, with regional partners, incarcerate fewer people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues and drug and alcohol addiction.

Co-Responder Programs

In 2014, the city first implemented a version of this program when the Boulder Police Department partnered with Mental Health Partners to divert people from jail and into behavioral health services and treatment.

That same year, the Black Lives Matter movement gained international attention as police killings of Black men prompted a new public reckoning on race. Such co-responder programs were among the ways to “reduce the use of deadly force” and “build trust with the communities we serve,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle wrote in a Daily Camera op-ed

Earlier this year, the city cut ties with Mental Health Partners and hired its own licensed clinicians. The reason, according to a memo by city staff, was to increase the use of diversion and to better understand the root causes of behavioral health crises.

Unlike many other similar crisis intervention teams, including Denver’s STAR program, a police officer always joins the clinician under Boulder’s program.

Changing that is on the table, Schwartz said. 

“We’re looking into that option,” she said in her email. “The Police Department is going to be looking into their data to evaluate which calls might be appropriate for a non-police team based on the level of potential safety concern involved.”

According to the report, the city police arrested only six people when responding to the 523 calls over the six-month period. In addition to the arrests, the report documented two instances involving use of force by police, one following an “attack” on a clinician and another involving the “feigned use of a weapon.”

A police car in downtown Boulder on Oct. 30, 2021. Only six people were arrested in 523 calls involving the Crisis Intervention Response Team over a six-month period, according to a new report on the program. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Future Funding

Boulder spends about $587,000 per year on the crisis intervention program, according to the report. The city’s 2022 budget does not include any additional money for the Housing and Human Services Department to hire more clinicians on the team. The city has requested federal money to hire a case manager, Schwartz said. She said the department may also request a mid-year budget adjustment to hire another clinician to work during high-demand daytime hours.  

The city’s 2022 budget includes an additional $651,341 to hire six police officers whose primary job is to respond to issues involving homelessness — including clearing encampments and referring people to the city’s coordinated entry program that connects unhoused residents to services and housing. 

Police Chief Maris Herold said in a news release the crisis intervention program has had a positive impact on the community and the police department. 

“Our officers are greatly appreciative of the CIRT partnership because of the knowledge, resources and diverse skill set they bring,” Herold said. 

According to the report, about 25% of the team’s encounters involved a person experiencing homelessness and another 8% involved someone at risk of losing housing. 

One of the program’s goals is to keep people experiencing homelessness or mental health issues out of jail.

Unhoused people make up about 35% of the county’s jail population of 1,104 people, according to state data. About 14% of people detained in the jail are awaiting a mental health competency evaluation before going to a trial.

In addition to Boulder’s crisis response team, Mental Health Partners maintains a 24-hour, non-police crisis intervention program. Call 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255 to reach a clinician and support specialist.

John Herrick

I report on housing, climate, health and local government for the Boulder Reporting Lab. I previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. I’m interested in stories about people, power and fairness.