Fort Collins police changing approach to mental health calls

By Saja Hinidi

When Fort Collins police officers responded Dec. 15 to a report of an agitated person with a gun, they had to act fast.

The first 911 call said the man was walking along the sidewalk of public streets that night, so police conducted traffic control on Taft Hill Road.

“It was a concern for the innocent citizens in the area,” SWAT Commander Lt. Dan Murphy said.

The caller said the man had a weapon in his sweatshirt pocket, so when police officers were dispatched to the area, they sent several officers, including one carrying less-lethal tools. They also brought the agency’s new mental health co-responder, Stephanie Booco.

Then, a family member called dispatch to report that the man was suicidal and potentially attempting suicide by cop.

Officers took cover behind vehicles and began negotiating with the man. At first, he wouldn’t show his hands or tell officers whether the gun he held in his pocket was real or fake.

About 20 seconds later, he told them it was real.

Murphy said the suspect continued to be uncooperative, so officers used what they call a “less-lethal opportunity.”

“That’s a set of circumstances based on the information officers have, the suspect’s positioning and the tools that we have,” Murphy said. “We combine all factors together, (including) whether negotiations are going good or bad.”

An officer then struck the man in his midsection with a sage baton round. Murphy compares it to getting hit with a fast ball, leaving less of a chance of serious bodily injury.

The man’s hand — and gun — came out of his sweatshirt. He fell to his side. And then he became more compliant with officers, Murphy said, as he was taken into custody and transported to Poudre Valley Hospital for a mental health evaluation.

He ended up thanking the officers before being transported for getting him help.

Booco, who is a licensed professional counselor and licensed addiction counselor with forensic psychology experience, followed up.

The gun turned out to be a realistic toy airsoft gun, according to police notes. But at night, officers couldn’t tell it wasn’t real.

Throughout the incident, Murphy said the officers were doing much of the talking, offering the man help. But that’s a difficult situation, he said, because police don’t know what a suspect is thinking.

Fort Collins police are looking to improve the ways they respond to and follow up on mental health calls.

Included in Chief Jeff Swoboda’s plans for a restructure within the police agency, Murphy will lead a newly formed Special Operations Unit beginning Jan. 1. He will oversee SWAT, K-9s, the mental health co-responders in partnership with SummitStone and UCHealth, and serve as a liaison to the Northern Colorado Bomb Squad.

Murphy, who is headed into his 28th year on SWAT, is well-known among law enforcement across the country, providing training to agencies on SWAT, negotiations, critical incident responses, active shooter situations and leadership.

Swoboda decided that he wanted to utilize that expertise.

The chief said he also recognizes that use of force and mental health are topics of importance to communities and police agencies across the country.

And in the oft-repeated goal of making Fort Collins “the safest city in the country,” Swoboda wanted to make sure that included an expansion of the mental health co-responder program. The co-responders will go along with police officers to scenes or just follow up with individuals who need mental health treatment and help connect them to the resources they need.

For Swoboda, “safest city in the country” doesn’t only mean safest when it comes to crime but also when it comes to problems of mental health and addiction.

“It’s going to be the continued development of this program, of that training, of that philosophy,” Murphy said. Because an incident doesn’t end when someone is taken into custody, he said. It ends with the debriefing and follow-ups.

Swboda said under this new unit, SWAT will be tracking the number of calls for service that deal with suicide and other mental health concerns, making sure calls are being handled consistently and officers have the equipment they need.

“Adding the co-responder into this mix allows for greater follow-up and people getting needed resources,” he said. “This also allows for rapport to be established, which will be helpful when the person is in crisis again.”

Oftentimes, officers are getting called to respond to situations involving the same individuals multiple times. But the goal isn’t to just throw the people in jail, Swoboda said, because it doesn’t solve the underlying problems.

Prior to the merging of the various teams under one umbrella, officers may have responded to an incident and then moved on, Murphy said. Now, there can be more follow-up and a more coordinated approach. The unit is also planning to conduct public outreach and education.

Murphy said they know there will be instances where officers have to use force in the future, but they’re hoping to mitigate some of those situations with this new unit, including reducing the amount of officer-involved shootings.

As the new chief on the job for less than a year, Swoboda said he spent the first months learning. Now, he’s encouraging his staff to try new things and let him know what works and what doesn’t, and the new unit is an example of that.

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Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com

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