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In its first year of service, Boulder’s Crisis Intervention Response Team has been busy.

The team, informally known as CIRT,  pairs a licensed clinician in Boulder’s Housing and Human Services Department with a Boulder Police officer on calls in which a person is experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

It launched last February, replacing Early Diversion Get Engaged (EDGE), which Boulder operated through a contract with Mental Health Partners.

Although the CIRT has existed for about a year, an initial report released in December compiles data and examines trends on the 523 calls the team responded to in its first six months of operation. Moving forward, Boulder intends to put out annual reports about the team.

Among other things, the initial CIRT report highlights a number of trends regarding the people who need assistance and how frequently they need it.

About one in four encounters involve a person experiencing homelessness, with an additional 8% involving a person at risk of losing housing.

The report also indicates that many people needed assistance multiple times, with about 25% of the 309 unique clients having more than one encounter with the team.

Of the 523 encounters involving CIRT, two involved use of force by an officer, and six ended in arrest.

“It’s pretty rare that calls end in arrest, and usually it’s because a person has a warrant or they’ve violated a restraining order,” team supervisor Lucy Larbalestier said. “So it’s mandatory.”

It’s hard to tell whether the presence of the CIRT has played a role in this regard since there wasn’t a way to classify calls that dealt with a behavioral health need before the team existed, she noted.

There are four licensed clinicians from the city’s Housing and Human Services department who respond to calls in which someone is experiencing a crisis, often related to mental health or substance use.

If a situation seems safe, the police officer and clinician may enter together, according to Larbalestier, who previously worked with the EDGE program. Otherwise, the police generally enter first.

At the scene, clinicians work with officers to support the person in need of help as well as family members or others present. Clinicians follow up after the situation is resolved and can connect people with resources if necessary. Co-responders also educate officers so they are better prepared when clinicians aren’t present.

Involuntary mental health holds were initiated in about 5% of the first 523 calls. The CIRT instead focuses on longer-term solutions such as helping people pick up prescriptions, connecting them with counselors at Mental Health Partners and more.

This marks a change in practice from before the Boulder Police Department had a co-response team, Officer Bryan Plyter noted.

“Before CIRT and previously EDGE … really the only tool that we had as police officers was a mental health hold,” Plyter said. “With CIRT it really opens up way more options.”

This has led to important conversations about the circumstances in which it makes sense to use hospitalizations, CIRT clinicians noted.

In some instances, it can increase a person’s suicidality by removing them from their social connections or pulling them out of work, clinician Kristi Phifer said.

One of the benefits of the CIRT is that clinicians are in plain clothes and often feel more approachable for people, Boulder Officer Leah Rech said.

“What’s wonderful about these guys is they’re not in uniform, which is a lot of times a barrier when we’re talking with a lot of different people,” she said.

At the same time, Amanda Roland, a clinician with the program, said there are people who have had bad experiences with mental health professionals or in hospitals who may respond better to an officer.

“That’s OK, too,” Roland said. “At the end of the day, whatever gets that person what they need.”

In the coming year, it’s possible additional resources will be allocated to the creation of a nonpolice emergency response team staffed by social workers and mental health professionals to respond to calls with no reports of crime in progress, violence or a life-threatening medical emergency.

This was an idea first recommended by now-Mayor Aaron Brockett in last year’s annual City Council retreat.

He suggested the program could be modeled after the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Oregon, which has been around for 30-plus years, or the newer Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program in Denver, which has been successful since its inception in June 2020.

It didn’t get off the ground in the year since he first recommended it. However, Brockett again prioritized it for this year’s workplan.

“What they’ve found is they get improved community outcomes from those while taking burdens off of our very busy police and fire departments and also saving some money in the long run,” he said in Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “It’s a win, win, win.”

Denver’s STAR program has been successful, but Larbalestier noted it complements the city’s coresponse team.

“Programs like STAR and CAHOOTS; they’ve found a niche that they respond to,” she said. “I can’t speak to exactly what they do because they’re not here.

“But I think it’s an ongoing conversation,” Larbalestier added.

Whether resources are officially allocated toward this remains to be seen. Boulder City Council will set its 2022 priorities in next week’s retreat.

CIRT operates from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends, so it’s not a 24/7 team. There are times when no clinicians are working. Those typically result in follow-ups.

The program may eventually expand its hours. However, demand data from the six-month report indicated its current hours of operation are appropriate.

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