State lawmakers halt bill to expand a mental health grant program for law enforcement

Supporters wanted more training and support for officers responding to mental health crisis calls. Opponents don’t want them responding in these situations in the first place.

A Lakewood police vehicle is parked outside the Lakewood Public Safety Center on June 28, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

A bill hearing at the state Legislature on Tuesday sparked a lengthy discussion about what entities should respond to emergency mental health calls.

Lawmakers hoped to expand an existing mental health grant program within Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs that allows community partners to collaborate with law enforcement agencies to improve the handling of mental health crisis calls. Such programs already exist, such as the Summit County Sheriff Office’s SMART team, which consists of a deputy, clinician and a case manager.

“We certainly want to establish a framework that allows more to participate, more entities to be a part of this solution and again, help our law enforcement system evolve into a system that is responsive to people in more ways than just through a typical policing model,” said Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, who introduced the bill with Rep. Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican.

State of the State
State Reps. Julie McCluskie, Leslie Herod and Tony Exum take a moment of silence to observe the lives lost to COVID-19 during the governor’s State of the State address Feb. 17, 2021. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

But the draft bill, which was presented to the House Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services Committee on March 2, received significant pushback from some community members about how the funds could — or should — be used. Lawmakers, after six hours of public testimony, decided to halt the bill from moving forward to allow more time to shape it with community feedback.

Many who spoke in opposition of the proposed bill expressed concerns that law enforcement should not be the ones responding to mental health calls in the first place, and that the measure doesn’t allow community-based programs to run without being connected to a law enforcement agency — an alternative to policing model that for decades communities of color have pushed for.

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

“(We) need to work to increase funding to community-based and co-responder programs and do it separately from law enforcement funding by creating guaranteed funding for violence prevention and alternatives to policing that are not at the discretion of law enforcement,” said Melanie Kesner, director of public policy for the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, during the committee meeting.

A wide array of law enforcement agencies can apply for the funding

Currently, law enforcement agencies can also use the grant funds for counseling services for officers; to develop and implement policies to support officers who kill someone while on duty; training and education programs to recognize job-related mental trauma; and peer support programs for officers. The bill “encourages” law enforcement agencies that are awarded the funding to collaborate with community-based service providers, but doesn’t mandate or set aside a certain amount of funding to do so.

Aurora police advance at City Center Park in Aurora during a protest on June 27, 2020, in response to the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police. (Photo by John Moore)

“This gives me great pause being the representative from Aurora,” said state Rep. Iman Jodeh, an Aurora Democrat. “Elijah McClain was killed — was murdered in Aurora by law enforcement. And the dynamics that the community in Aurora has with law enforcement are very rooted in generational trauma. So I cannot ignore the fact that the way this bill is worded would not necessarily serve my constituents to the best that it could.” 

A wide array of law enforcement agencies can apply for the funding including the Colorado State Patrol, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Revenue, county sheriff’s offices, municipal police departments, campus police departments, town marshals’ offices and the Division of Parks and Wildlife. Public safety agencies such as fire departments and emergency medical or emergency response services can also apply.

HELP US GROW
Make a tax-deductible donation.

Supporters of the bill spoke at length about how law enforcement needs more training for responding to mental health calls, as well more mental health support for themselves.

Dan Brite, a member of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, spoke in support of the bill during the committee meeting. Brite was shot by a man experiencing a mental health crisis five years ago and is now confined to a wheelchair. 

“With access to services like the ones HB 21-1030 seeks to fund, the subject probably would still be alive with his family, and I wouldn’t have experienced such a traumatic event,” he said.

‘The amendments are an encouraging start, but it’s not enough’

Elisabeth Epps, co-founder of the Colorado Freedom Fund, said during public testimony that if the bill was truly replacing law enforcement officers with behavioral health specialists, she would be first in line to support it. 

Elisabeth Epps speaks to community members gathered at Manual High School in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood in August 2020 in solidarity with Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot multiple times in the back by Wisconsin police. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“But it doesn’t do that,” she said. “There is a disconnect between what the bill frames as its goals compared to what the bill actually prescribes.”

During her public testimony, Epps talked about the trauma she experienced when four Denver Police officers entered her home in 2012 for a welfare check and ultimately arrested her for allegedly assaulting a police officer. “Nine years later, I still don’t feel safe in that home,” she told lawmakers.

The bill sponsors introduced four amendments during the hearing — with input from the ACLU of Colorado — in an attempt to address community members’ concerns. But the amendments weren’t voted on and the bill was ultimately halted from moving forward.

The most significant changes in the amendments would have included a clarification that community partners could be the lead organization on the grant and removed a section that specified that the $2 million allocated for the program must go directly to law enforcement agencies.

“The amendments are an encouraging start, but it’s not enough,” Epps said during her testimony. “This is important enough to get it right.”

HELP US GROW
Make a tax-deductible donation.