Power of public testimony: Bill that would expand law enforcement grant program amended in response to community concerns

Bill aims to improve how 911 mental health crisis calls are handled with support from community partners

By: - March 8, 2021 12:11 pm

The Colorado State Capitol Building on Oct. 15, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Lawmakers halted a bill in the Colorado Legislature on March 2 after hearing community concerns regarding the expansion of an existing mental health program for law enforcement. After the bill sponsors solicited more public input, the bill unanimously passed out of committee on March 5. The bill will next move to the House Appropriations Committee.

“In these few days we were able to continue our dialogue with several of the stakeholders, and I am happy to say that I believe our amendments meet their expectations as well as ours,” Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat who sponsored the bill, told lawmakers on Friday.

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House Bill 21-1030 aims to expand a mental health grant program for law enforcement within Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs. The program allows community partners to collaborate with law enforcement agencies in a co-responder approach to improve the handling of mental health crisis calls. 

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean
House Minority Leader Hugh McKean delivers a speech on legislators’ first day back at the Colorado Capitol, Feb. 16, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

During the bill’s first hearing on March 2 in the House Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services Committee, community members expressed concerns that the way in which the bill was worded seemed to preclude community-based organizations from both applying to the grant program directly and responding to behavioral health calls without a law enforcement member present. 

On March 5, the bill sponsors — McCluskie and House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican — passed five amendments to the bill, which clarified that community-based social service or behavioral health providers that apply for the grant in partnership with a law enforcement agency can respond to certain calls in lieu of police officers.

“There was a lot of work on Rep. McCluskie and the Minority Leader’s part to get it where it needed to be and they listened to the testimony and responded accordingly,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, who testified in opposition of the bill on Tuesday, in an interview with Newsline. “So we are glad about that.”

The amendments include:

  • Exchanging the word “mental” with “behavioral” throughout the bill in order to include substance abuse disorders 
  • Adding a line that allows immediate family members of police officers to receive counseling services
  • A technical change requested by the Department of Local Affairs, which administers the grant program 
  • A clarification that a community-based alternative response means “a person-centered crisis response to community members who are experiencing problems related to poverty, homelessness, behavioral health, food insecurity, and other social issues that directs certain calls for police services to more appropriate support providers in lieu of a police response”
  • A change that allows the $2 million fund to be used for both direct services as well as traditional co-responder programs and community-based responses

In addition to establishing co-responder programs, 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. 

Bill sponsors applauded for improved language, reaching out to community members

“As we all strive for law enforcement reform, many people have different ideas and visions for what that should look like,” said Rep. Richard Holtorf, an Akron Republican. “I think that this bill allows for that flexibility.” He added, “And I appreciate the consideration for the people that I represent out in the country, us country folks.”

Rep. Iman Jodeh represents the Colorado’s 41st District. (Colorado House Democrats)

Rep. Iman Jodeh, an Aurora Democrat who expressed apprehension about the bill on Tuesday, voted in support of the measure on Friday, stressing that if community responders were the ones called to check on Elijah McClain, who died after a violent encounter with Aurora police officers in 2019, he might still be alive.  

“I just want to make sure that we get this out of committee so that we continue to work on this bill and get it to a place that works for the community, especially in Aurora,” Jodeh said. “But it is not lost upon me that there should be and needs to be a separation of law enforcement and community responders.”

Vinnie Cervantes, director of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response who also spoke in opposition of the bill on Tuesday, said that McCluskie had reached out to him on Thursday to get his input. He said he appreciated the changes in the bill language. Cervantes’ organization helped pave the way for Denver’s STAR program, which sends mental health professionals to crisis calls instead of law enforcement officers.

“I think it was a good conversation, and I think it cleared up the misunderstanding overall,” Cervantes said. “I think my biggest concern was that we weren’t involved in the process at all.”

He added that he’s concerned that community organizations such as his are still required to apply for the grant program with “permission” from law enforcement. Ultimately, he’d like to see more community-based responder programs established with dedicated funding that are completely removed from law enforcement oversight.

“From our perspective, if a law enforcement agency is presented with the opportunity of getting funding for a brand new community responder program versus an existing co-responder program, I think they will choose the latter,” he added.

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Newsline reporter that covered criminal justice, housing and homelessness, and other social issues.

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