A 'beacon' of hope: FPD clinician gets to work
Last updated 7/22/2021 at 10:21am
The new behavioral health unit at Fountain Police Department has been at work for a few weeks now, and people are already seeing a difference.
While introducing clinician Krysta Parker to the City Council last week, Police Chief Chris Heberer recalled witnessing her in action as she sat on the ground with an individual in a crisis situation and how her expertise helped diffuse the tension.
Parker, a UCHealth employee, has teamed up with Sgt. Ken Owens, who has been with the Fountain Police Department for 18 years, with 27 years total in law enforcement. He has worked patrol, K-9 and hostage negotiations. He is Fountain's primary negotiator for the Crisis Negotiations Unit, and is the K-9 coordinator for the department. He is a CIT (Crisis Intervention Training) trained officer and assists with the training of other officers going through CIT.
Owens' main duty is as the BHCON unit officer, where he fulfills the law enforcement half of the team. BHCON stands for Behavioral Health Connect and is pronounced "beacon."
"We're really excited to be doing this," Owens said. "We're here to help."
Parker, the clinician half of the team, earned her Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW) from New York University in May. She has worked in the Summit County Jail in Park City, Utah, providing outpatient therapy services to incarcerated individuals and others in the community. She also worked as a volunteer victim's advocate, providing referrals and services to sexual assault and domestic violence survivors at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
"I've been interested in crisis work for a long time," Parker said, adding that she much prefers working in the field than in an office.
There certainly is no shortage of crisis situations, even in a city the size of Fountain. Many of BHCON's cases involve suicidal parties. In addition, the large military and veteran population results in numerous PTSD cases. But BHCON deals with various mental or behavioral challenges, including individuals with substance abuse and/or psychosis (the two often go hand-in-hand), autism or developmental delays that might cause a person to act younger than their age or possibly react differently to strangers than the average person, and even domestic violence cases.
One misconception the team wants to clear up is that mental health workers are not replacing cops, and that both positions have specific duties depending on the circumstances. Police officers will continue to be the first to respond to calls, assess and secure the scene, and determine what next steps to take.
In addition, Parker won't be going into dangerous situations in place of an officer.
"She's never alone," Owens said. "I'm there for her and to help support her for what she needs to do."
Fountain's BHCON Unit joins two existing BHCON teams at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. That program has partnered with UC Health for a few years to bring similar services to county jurisdictions. Other partners in that program have included El Paso County Public Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
The county's co-responder model, launched in 2018, uses an approach that pairs law enforcement with licensed behavioral health clinicians for a coordinated response to emergency calls that are mental health related.
If there is a call in Security-Widefield and FPD's unit has time, it can help EPSO by providing BHCON response. Conversely, the county's teams may join Fountain officers when needed.
The main goals of BHCON are to avoid police uses of force and de-escalate potentially dangerous situations while getting people the resources they truly need.
"We're not there to take anybody to jail; that's not our goal," Owens said.
However, the presence of BHCON does not mean people won't be arrested.
"There's definitely a time and a place that law enforcement still has to go in and take care of law enforcement duties," Owens said. "There's definitely still times that police have to be the police."
Parker explained that people are still held responsible for their actions when BHCON is involved, but sometimes there are underlying developmental reasons for those behaviors that the clinician can spot that the average police officer perhaps cannot.
The practice of adding a clinician to ease tensions and properly assess a potential behavioral or mental health challenge not only increases the chance of individuals getting appropriate help and resources, but it frees up patrol officers on scene for backup to tend to other calls while the specialists dig into the details.
Once police and the clinician complete their assessments and wrap up the scene, the clinician refers the case to a Case Manager for follow-up. In serious cases, the clinician can recommend sending a subject to an Emergency Room, placing them on a 72-hour mental health hold or other intervention. Additional referrals for care or services will be made at that time.
The clinician's ability to write an M1 hold – sending someone for a 72-hour mental health review – sometimes saves many hours of time, Parker explained. Often when police believe someone is suicidal or needs a mental health check, the first step is the ER – followed by extensive wait times. The M1 hold can bypass that and means direct care for the individual begins a lot sooner than usual.
Currently, Fountain's BHCON Unit is on duty noon-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. When not actively responding to calls, Parker and Owens follow up on existing cases, conduct outreach on cases from other officers that appear to have behavioral components, perform phone consultations to officers out of the area, provide tips to officers on how to handle certain situations, and catch up on the always-present paperwork involved in documenting each case.