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Denver RTD

Denver RTD police officers Stephen Johnson (left) and Justin Smith, along with Mental Health Center of Denver clinician Randi Edwards (center) are part of an ongoing effort to improve the transit system’s response to mental health crises. (Photo courtesy of Denver RTD)

Transit System Pairs Mental Health and Security Professionals

When Steven Martingano started working for the Regional Transportation District (RTD) in Denver, Colorado, in 2016, the department operated a program that suspended service to people who either evaded fares regularly or engaged in criminal conduct while on RTD property. Under the program, those suspended had 10 days to appeal the decision.

As deputy chief for Denver RTD, Martingano oversaw the program, including appeal requests.

“I was contacted several weeks in a row by mental health clinicians that asked me if I was able to amend their clients’ suspensions because they needed public transportation to attend their visits,” Martingano says.

And this trend of mental health professionals reaching out to Martingano didn’t fade away. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released data in 2017 that placed Colorado as the U.S state with the third-highest percentage of residents living with mental illness, coming in at 19.55 percent.

So, Martingano reached out to the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD) in the hopes that there might be a way to reduce the number of suspensions that Denver RTD was regularly issuing to MHCD clients. Several of those suspensions resulted from minor criminal acts, such as disturbing the peace and hindering public transportation, according to Martingano.

“These suspensions could have been avoided if the individual had been contacted by a mental health clinician—rather than a uniformed police officer—who understood that the actions displayed were due to their mental health condition rather than criminal intent,” he says.

"These suspensions could have been avoided if the individual had been contacted by a mental health clinician…who understood that the actions displayed were due to their mental health condition rather than criminal intent."

In speaking with MHCD, Martingano discovered that the center was participating in a program that paired a mental health clinician with a police officer. Given that Denver RTD also employs police officers with certification from Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), Martingano and MHCD decided to begin a similar co-responder unit pilot program with Denver RTD.

The pilot program between Denver RTD and MHCD lasted three months, quickly establishing that it fit a need for the department and overall ridership. Instead of hindering MHCD clients, officers were creating relationships with riders and community resources, while also improving services and the knowledge base they could offer riders. What began as one unit with a full-time clinician soon became a permanent endeavor.

As the program expanded into a full-time and fully-funded endeavor by both Denver RTD and MHCD, clinicians’ interactions continued to yield more positive results—offering riders a greater chance to receive sometimes necessary medical and mental assistance—while Denver RTD’s communications team touted the program’s efficacy.

The positive results and data encouraged the Denver RTD leadership to expand the program in the summer of 2020, leading to a total of four full-time clinicians who can cover calls seven days per week.

Upon receiving a call about a person or misdemeanor, a department dispatcher determines whether to call for a regular unit or for the co-responder unit. The dispatcher will call for the co-responder unit if it is reported that someone on Denver RTD property is behaving erratically or has mentioned certain behavior—such as suicidal thoughts or not eating or sleeping for several days.

When a co-responder unit receives a call, it evaluates the person in question on the scene. The clinician determines whether that person requires medical care or if the behavior merits a criminal citation, Martingano says.

In instances where a criminal citation is considered unnecessary, the partners work together to collect information from the scene, building a complete assessment on the disruptive person, and determining if that person needs medical or mental health support. They also assess whether any community resources can be called to help the person at the scene, such as a representative from a shelter or long-term housing organization.

When someone needs immediate medical attention, the unit calls for an ambulance. Alternately, if the unit determines that the person needs a more extensive medical evaluation, it can transport the person to an emergency room or mental health center.

“Based upon needs determined by the clinician, clinicians will work post-incident to ensure that the person is connected to whatever services they may need,” Martingano says.

The unit obtains the best contact information for the individual to follow up afterward; however, when that is not possible—such as with individuals experiencing homelessness—the unit instead determines where to best locate this person afterward. This can occur through cooperation with other community resources, mental or behavioral treatment centers, long-term housing or shelters, and other means. “The goal is to no longer have that person in self-identified crisis,” Martingano says.

Clinicians also file information after every interaction, helping Denver RTD and MHCD collect data and continue measuring the program’s success and trends.

“We measure the success of our teams based on the types of interventions that are provided in lieu of them being cited criminally or arrested,” Martingano says. “For example, being transported to another community crisis provider, being taken into long-term treatment services with MHCD or other mental/behavioral health entities, helping them return to their home, etc.”

The program also measures success when the frequency of such calls decreases.

"We measure the success of our teams based on the types of interventions that are provided in lieu of them being cited criminally or arrested." 

Martingano notes that the partnership has benefited Denver RTD by fostering greater understanding and listening skills in officers, ensuring that they help riders in the long run.

MHCD clinicians benefit through their direct engagement with community members, offering people who might otherwise fall through the cracks a chance to receive support and resources.

Martingano adds that the program has also assisted the Allied Universal transit security officers (TSOs)—which Denver RTD contracts as a supplemental service—to better spot signs of mental illness.

These TSOs have increased their awareness of what might be troubling a disruptive rider and now also operate as ambassadors for the department through rider assistance.

“The TSOs use key words with riders such as, ‘When was the last time you slept?’ or, ‘Have you eaten recently?’ and have a greater understanding on when to call for a co-responder unit due to a person’s potential mental health illness,” Martingano says.

“We hope that, as a result, the community and those utilizing RTD services acquire a more welcoming and safer day-to-day experience,” he continues.

For more information, contact Allied Universal’s Robert Qualkenbush, [email protected].