Alamosa Police Department hires co-responder

‘This is a very, very important program’

ALAMOSA — About a year and a half ago, Alamosa Police Department officers responded to a call of a person armed with a weapon who was threatening suicide.

“Those can be dangerous situations,” said Police Chief Ken Anderson. “There’s a risk of people getting hurt or worse. It could be the person in crisis. It could also be one of my cops.  Everybody’s at risk.”

Fortunately, the officers on scene managed to de-escalate the situation and the individual eventually handed over the weapon.

Most people would assume the call ended there, but it didn’t.

The officers couldn’t just drive away when, moments before, a person threatened to kill themselves. APD needed to get mental health services involved to provide help that was clearly needed.

That’s not what happened.

One of the officers called several agencies but kept being referred to someone else. Eventually, the officer called his sergeant. The sergeant made some calls but his luck wasn’t any better.

“That’s when the sergeant called me,” Anderson told the Valley Courier when this story was first reported in March. “I was on the phone for twenty-five minutes. One agency told me they couldn’t take the individual and to call a different agency. That agency told me to call somebody else. Eventually, we got the person some help but that’s when I called the city manager and told her we had to do something.”

This story is worth repeating, not because it’s unique but precisely because it isn’t.

The American Psychological Association estimates that, in 2021, 20% of police calls involved mental health services.

A nationwide survey of more than 2,400 senior law enforcement officials conducted by former New York State Association of Chiefs of Police and the Naval Postgraduate School, Michael C. Biasotti, showed that 84% said that mental health-related calls have increased during their careers. Sixty-three percent said the amount of time their department spends on mental illness has also increased.

The report goes on to state that more than half the reported increased time is due to an inability to refer people to needed treatment. Referring people to appropriate resources, as well as following up with treatment, takes time and resources for already strained departments.

According to Anderson, APD is dispatched from six to 10 times per week on calls related to mental health, a number that “has increased dramatically” in recent years. Five hundred calls a year may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the 25,000 to 30,000 APD receives annually. But, as the incident demonstrates, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Law enforcement officers being sole responders to mental health calls can have a cascading impact, not just on the department but on the community.

The calls can tie up multiple officers, leaving a smaller number of cops on duty to answer other calls.  

Responding to a mental health crisis takes time. Officers trying to involve mental health services have historically been bounced from agency to agency due to, among other things, not having the training to know exactly what is going on with the person.    

The longer it takes to resolve the situation and get the person help that is needed – in that moment – the greater the likelihood that the situation could – in that moment – begin to re-escalate, increasing the likelihood that someone gets hurt.

“Taking the person to jail isn’t the answer,” Anderson says. ”Knowing which agency to call is confusing. And if we take the person to the hospital, the officer has to stay there until someone with mental health shows up.”

Officers have spent their entire shift in the emergency department waiting for a mental health professional.

“But the main problem is that we’re not trained to do this,” Anderson said. “We’re not counselors. We’re cops.”

When Anderson told Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks that they “had to do something”, he wasn’t just venting frustration. He was identifying a serious, growing problem in need of a solution.

After visiting other police departments for a best practices approach, Anderson and Brooks decided on the program they wanted to model, one that is being run by the Evans Police Department with great success. Brooks then went to work finding the resources to fund what they wanted to do.

As a result, APD and the city just took a huge step forward in getting something done.

Tim Dellette, a certified clinician, was hired by APD as its first co-responder. He began working on Aug. 29. Delette, from Virginia, is already known to some organizations in Alamosa, including La Puente, Tu Casa, PALS and Adams State University –  where he’s conducted group therapy sessions.

When APD officers are dispatched to a mental health situation, Delette will be on call to respond at officers’ requests. He will not be uniformed or carrying a weapon and won’t become involved until it’s clear there’s no risk to his safety.  

Delette will step in to meet the needs of the situation. According to Brooks, he may be called to respond when there is a barricaded suspect or an incident of domestic violence, but his job is not to directly provide services.

His job is to identify what “is going on” with the person in crisis and to then navigate the mental health system and connect the person to the appropriate agency whose job it is to provide the help, freeing up officers to resume their duties.

Brooks said Delette can also identify when adult protective services should be contacted. And, in a case where a 72-hour psychiatric hold is necessary. Delette will stay with the person until they are transferred to a psychiatric facility – again, freeing up officers to be on patrol.

Sometimes APD is dispatched to situations involving people they have had contact with before. In cases where people are getting ticketed for “nuisance behaviors”, having the co-responder position on staff will pave the way to build relationships and have crucial conversations.

They can determine things such as: Is the person seeing a therapist? Are they taking medication that has been prescribed?

Delette, who is a city employee, is officed alongside APD officers at the police station, allowing him to brief officers on how a situation was resolved without sharing any medical information that would violate HIPPA compliance.

“He’s just been there a week, so right now he’s onboarding,” Anderson said, referring to the steps involved in getting someone hired as a city employee and equipped to do the job.

Over the next few weeks, Dellette will attend training provided by the Evans Police Department, where, among other things, he’ll do ride-alongs with Evans PD co-responders and take the same training Evans PD co-responders attend. 

Once Delette is back in Alamosa, Anderson predicts he will be “independent” in about two weeks. Until then, he won’t respond to a call without Anderson going along.

Delette will not have a set schedule until APD has a better sense of when he is most needed. APD and the city have also entered a partnership with Valleywide to provide joint supervision of Delette on the job. Funding will come from money received as part of the American Rescue Plan Act until 2026, when Brooks says they will pursue grants to cover the position.

When asked how his cops were responding, Anderson said, “the officers are very open to the new position and receptive to knowing it’s going to take a while before the position is complete and functioning. But this is a very, very important program. We’re all open arms.”