In June, the city's Police Oversight Panel released its first annual report summarizing allegations of misconduct by city police. Credit: John Herrick

As soon as next year, the City of Boulder could launch a new alternative police response program that would send behavioral health clinicians, paramedics and case managers on 911 calls without the assistance of police officers, city officials said during a town hall on Thursday, June 16. 

Officials said the non-police responders would be dispatched on calls involving situations ranging from a mental health crisis to non-emergencies such as loitering. They would likely respond to about 3% of the calls that come into the department, Police Chief Maris Harold said. 

The potential pilot program comes as the city works to reform policing and grapple with recent police officer hiring challenges. Such alternative police response programs have gained popularity across the United States following national protests against police use of force and disproportionate killings of Black people. Advocates in Boulder have long called for such a program in order to prevent police from arresting people experiencing a mental health crisis or homelessness.

Wendy Schwartz, the city’s chief of staff, told Boulder Reporting Lab that the program aims to better respond to the broad array of 911 calls with a broader array of emergency response expertise. 

Schwartz said the new pilot program would include case managers to connect people with resources, such as homelessness services or mental health support. 

The program would not necessarily replace the city’s four-person co-responder program known as the Crisis Intervention Response Team, or CIRT, which pairs police officers with behavioral health clinicians on calls involving people experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis. The Boulder City Council last month approved a plan to hire two additional clinicians for the team in order to expand its hours of operation. 

The key difference between the CIRT program and the proposed pilot is that the new program would not couple the clinicians with police officers. Instead, it would be modeled on non-police response programs such as  Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) in Denver and Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon.

Schwartz said city officials plan to pitch a pilot program to the Boulder City Council in October, with the possibility of launching it early 2023. The city’s Police, Fire-Rescue and Housing and Human Services departments are working on the details of the potential program, according to Schwartz.

The city’s co-responder program has struggled to staff up given the shortage of mental health clinicians across the state. Schwartz said the city is in the process of hiring the two additional clinicians approved by council, and is optimistic it can hire more for the pilot program. She added that the city may contract with a health care provider to staff the program. 

The monthly town halls hosted by the Boulder Police Department are partially aimed at answering questions from city residents and finding out what’s on their minds. Many of the questions during Thursday’s virtual meeting centered around the issues of homelessness and bike thefts — common themes during past meetings. 

City officials said they are still clearing homeless encampments under the city’s camping ban ordinance, which makes it illegal to sleep in public spaces. In the last week, city employees and police officers cleared 19 encampments, according to city data.

A recent lawsuit from the ACLU of Colorado alleges that ticketing people for sleeping outside when the city’s shelters are at capacity violates constitutionally protected civil rights. The city is yet to respond to the civil lawsuit. 

To prevent bike thefts, Police Chief Herold said residents should register their bikes with Bike Index, a Chicago-based nonprofit, using the bicycle’s serial number. The number is usually located under the bottom bracket. The city also has tips for preventing bike theft. 

The city recently selected the National Policing Institute to come up with a process for gathering feedback from the community to help create a new master plan, according to a city news release. The contract is for $74,000. 

The links to the town halls can be found here and some associated documents can be found here

The next town hall is scheduled for July 20. 

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.