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On mental health: What do Colorado police who handle issues think?

Cops in Boulder taking new approach on taking pressure off of mental health system
Cops in Boulder taking new approach on taking pressure off of mental health system 06:09

It is a blue-sky sunny day in downtown Boulder. Officers Keith Steinman and Ross Maynard walk the greening grass in and around the bandshell where Coloradans living in homeless conditions spend a lot of time.

"You sure you're OK?" they'll ask when stopping to talk to people wrapped in blankets on the ground.

Steinman and Maynard are part of the Boulder Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team, doing daily work connecting with people in crisis in one way or another.

Boulder Police Officers Ross Maynard, left, and Keith Steinman, center, talk to people experiencing homelessness in downtown Boulder on Friday, April 12, 2024. CBS

"It takes up officers' time to do other things to deal with the same people over and over again," says Steinman.

They talk about how people are often released when arrested on relatively minor charges as quickly as officers can complete the paperwork.

"Obviously the criminal justice response to homelessness isn't necessarily working the way that people thought it would. So we need to just think of other ideas," says Maynard. "Otherwise all of your cops are just going to spend all their time arresting homeless people on warrants instead of being able to provide the service to you at your home and in your neighborhood."

It's been an education for the officers, too. Steinman said he used to get impatient with people leaving things behind in the parks downtown.

But he now says some of the people he sees, "don't know whether they're coming or going."

Boulder Police Officer Ross Maynard CBS

"Being on this side of it, now you see that this is probably the only thing that they have is stuff that they carry to their names," he said.

Many of the people he recognizes are hurting from their pasts and other problems.

"This is societal wreckage here. Like I said, these people have trauma. Lots and lots of trauma. They've experienced more things in their childhood than most people have experienced in their entire lives," he notes. "They're foster care age-outs. A lot of them have traumatic brain injuries, fetal alcohol syndrome. Many of them have acute mental illness, that sort of thing."

Colorado's mental health care system is ranked low compared with other states, but other states often have little to brag about. Across the country, the shortage of services for people has become more grave through the years through a lack of funding for programs that were planned to replace large institutions that closed amid worries about the rights of those in crisis. What has replaced it, is jails and prisons, hospitals and courts and police and sheriff's deputies.

While the legislature has been making recent effort, when the shortcomings were fully recognized about 10 years ago, things started slowly.

"(They said) they really need to be going into treatment and having mental health services, but did they really fund anything? No they didn't right," said Maynard.

In the parks and open spaces, the two officers try to connect with people. They often end up as street counselors in a way. The message sometimes gets through, sometimes not. It can take time.

"Slowly but surely, particularly as life happens to them, you know one day they flag you down and they're like hey, what's that housing structure you're talking about?" says Steinman.

Boulder Police Officer Keith Steinman CBS

To some, the idea of police in uniform can be triggering, according to some in mental health. It's why some response vehicles such as Denver's STAR van don't include officers in response. But Maynard points out the view from his side.

"Social workers can be triggering," he says.

They're the people, Maynard says, who have let the people down through the years and have been involved in traumatic incidents like removal from families in their childhoods.

"My caseworker has not tried to help me at all," says 34-year-old Ashley, who was near the bandshell in Central Park.

She explains she had mental health issues and addiction issues that started in her teenage years, which she blamed on being over-prescribed medications by a psychiatrist. More recently she's struggled with other drugs, including methamphetamine only three days prior.

"I just want to be able to be more stable so I can be involved with my kids more," she says. She had lost custody of her two boys.

"I'll have a few good months and then I'll have a depression episode and it's hard to kind of get back on track. And I also have a personality disorder called borderline personality disorder which is not something medication can help."

But she hopes for better housing after losing the car she was sleeping in to theft by a former companion.

"I'm at the point where I really want to get my foot in the door to get back on my feet and get housing."

Steinman and Maynard spoke with her about housing ideas and underscored the importance of making appointments before parting ways.

"We'll transport them to their appointments, we'll transport them to court so they can keep on track so they can stay in housing, stay in jobs," says Steinman.

It is outside the usual bounds of policing, but the department is supportive.

They want to see more options like services for the mentally ill and addicted because the current system seems to be not only not working, but costly with court appearances, jails and hospitals caring for people in crisis.

"That costs way more than they would ever cost if we would just A, either put them in housing and help them get the treatment and the resources and the wraparound services that they need or B novel idea, as a society we start taking care of people way earlier, through proper health care, robust mental health services, interventions at a young age and that sort of thing," says Maynard.

In many states including Colorado, the process of civil commitment has been harder since the late 1990s and the resources lacking. There are 72 short holds for people in crisis, including "M1 holds" as they're called, for people with mental illness.

"We have people literally get out of, get off an M1 and start jumping into traffic on Arapahoe to get back in and it's just like there's nothing, it's laughable," says Maynard.

Without options, they are the last resort for many people. Law enforcement deals with the consequences of an underfunded mental health system. Maynard believes the justice system should have more ability to push people into treatment.

"That process needs to be put into place," Maynard says, "so that we can start doing that rather than just letting people just rot and die in parks, experiencing mental health episodes and drug abuse and all that kind of stuff and constantly being preyed on and prey on each other because that's what we have here."

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