HSO

Andy Atkinson, Katie Hundertmark and Braulio Jerez work together in mental health response calls, bringing a different approach to police work.

Of the 199 calls involving mental health recorded by the Pitkin Area Co-Responder Teams, or PACT, in the last three months, Katie Hundertmark assisted with 129.

Hundertmark is the mental health clinician who serves as the co-responder in PACT calls. She works alongside Aspen-Snowmass area police when situations arise that require analyzing more than the black-and-white letter of the law.

When in Aspen Police Department’s jurisdiction, her mainstay partner is Braulio Jerez, the department’s full-time human services officer. In their short months together — Jerez took over the dedicated HSO position in August, and the county launched PACT in June — the duo have cultivated an almost seamless communication style. 

It’s been immeasurably important in better servicing calls that aren’t outright criminal in nature, Jerez said.

“Katie and I have a really good relationship where she tells me, ‘Hey, I got this.’ I show up on the scene, the scene is safe, and she tells me, ‘I’m good here,’” he said.

And having both a trained mental health professional and a police officer in uniform allows people to choose with whom they’re more comfortable interacting in a time of duress. 

“Some people feel more comfortable with the officer; some people feel better with the mental health clinician. So having that resource — that partner — has been amazing,” Jerez continued.

PACT is in some ways a natural extension of APD’s yearslong cultural shift toward emphasizing mental health, both in its interactions with the community and internally, Assistant Aspen Police Chief Linda Consuegra noted.

One of the earliest changes in that regard was establishing the HSO role about two-and-a-half years ago, officer Andy Atkinson added. Atkinson was the first in the department to assume that role — and he credits Chief Richard Pryor for the position’s creation.

“He was looking at it as constantly running these people through the criminal justice system over and over again. [It] wasn’t doing any good. It wasn’t stopping the behavior,” he said of Pryor. “So it was looking at it from a completely different approach: Let’s go out and contact these people outside of the moment of crisis and see if we can redirect them, get them to the services they should be getting to. Is this an addiction problem? Do they need to get into rehab? Is this mental health? Do they get up to [mental health center] Mind Springs?”

It worked, Atkinson said.

“Right from the beginning, we noticed a reduction of some of the calls with some of those folks, and that was when we started moving toward the PACT program,” he said.It also took a whole new perspective from traditional policing and training, Atkinson added.

“We actually have some incredible resources up at [Department of Health and Human Services], between the folks at detox and Mind Springs and just everything they have going on up there,” Atkinson said. “It was really eye opening as a cop, and never really seeing that side of things, to get out there and just spending time up there and seeing what they do.”

To that end, APD has sent all of its veteran officers through Crisis Intervention Teams, or CIS, training, a 40-hour intensive program, Consuegra explained.

“That’s [for] our community response officers as well, because sometimes they respond to ambulance calls,” she said. “We’ve had a few calls, even from the community response officers, where they’ve been like, ‘Wait a second. This person might benefit from talking to a counselor or a therapist or calling PACT.’ That’s been useful, just to give the tools to recognize and then to be able to just talk to people.”

Still, it’s a tough job — and after Atkinson’s transition out of the full-time HSO (he still works Mondays), the department realized it needed to more formally acknowledge that if the position is going to be sustainable.

“When Braulio put in for the position, we talked about a time limit if necessary — or a good time limit, healthwise,” Consuegra said. “It takes a lot to just sit there, and day after day, you are listening and trying to figure it out. And a lot of the times, you’re doing it with the same person on a daily basis, on a weekly basis. And that can take a toll on you, so how do we spread the wealth? Honestly, it’s a hard job.”

The HSO’s day-to-day tasks vary greatly, Jerez said. Sometimes, it’s a welfare check because a neighbor is concerned. Other times, it’s getting clothes from the thrift store because a transient person needs a shower before he or she is allowed on the bus. And still other times, it’s responding to a suicide, which happened as recently as a week ago.

“Those are the hard calls, because those are the calls that you also then ask yourself, ‘How did I miss it?’” Consuegra said. 

As for Jerez, he copes by staying focused on the scene and task at hand during particularly difficult calls.

“You gotta approach everything pretty objectively: show up on scene and help out whoever needs the help at that time,” he said. “You’ve got medics doing their thing; investigators are doing their things. You just try to provide support and offer as many resources as you can if there’s people on scene other than the deceased party.”

Of course, self care is essential in order to sustain that level of services — and that, too, has been part of the department’s internal cultural shift: making sure staff has access to resources, too.

“We’ve always had [Employee Assistance Program]. We’ve always had fitness, wellness, which allows officers to work [out] on duty twice a week,” Consuegra said, adding that Pryor has been focused on integrating other perspectives of wellness. “This year, we’re introducing financial wellness. Last week, we went through mental health wellness. We actually provided some vicarious trauma training for staff; we also provided a seminar for the families ... of how to understand the first responders and what do we bring home, how do we operate?” 

Additionally, the department offered 19 individual therapy sessions for employees — all of which were utilized. Overall, turnout and reception of the newer offerings have been well received.

“My next step is now I’m going to do a post survey and just see what was the take on people, what needs to still happen, what would they like to see more of … so we’re just taking some steps to really also take care of ourselves internally, which I’m pretty excited about,” she continued.

Just as much care is given to the hiring process. In fact, by hiring “the right people” from the outset, Consuegra said, the department was set up for success when handling turnover in the HSO role. 

Jerez and Atkinson agreed.

“There’s a lot of focus on the things you can’t train. Compassion, empathy, work ethic and things like that are really valued in our hiring process — and that’s one of the main reasons I work here, honestly,” Atkinson said.

And by putting a sort of term limit on any one person shouldering the HSO responsibility, more and more officers will ultimately have a deeper understanding of the valley’s resources for people needing them most.

If the statistics are any indication, that will be critical, as the need for mental health support only seems to be increasing. Whether that’s because of an increase in awareness or actual population throughout the year — in the last three months, September saw the most PACT calls, at 78 — is still to be determined. Consuegra suspects it’s likely a combination of both factors, but either way, she encourages anyone with any concern or questions to reach out to APD.

“I think nowadays, if you look around, someone can think of someone they know, or someone in their family or themselves who have experience, either [with] depression or mental health or illness or challenge,” she said. “What would you like someone to do with your family, with your friend or with you if you were to ever experience anything like that? We’ve got to start somewhere.”

Jessica Beaulieu, PACT program manager who tracks those calls, surmised that the reason for the uptick will become more evident as more data come in.

“Can you believe 199 mental health related calls? And shoulder season being the highest of the three months … very interesting, and kind of makes sense from a socioeconomic standpoint. Shoulder season is an unstructured and sometimes unstable time for many people in our valley,” she said in an email. “For the moment, the numbers seem to reflect the toll it can take on peoples’ mental well-being.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.