Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Aurora City Council members this weekend granted initial approval to fund a pilot program that would see more mental health workers responding to local 911 calls instead of police officers.

During a budget workshop held Saturday, council members unanimously agreed to allocate $160,000 to implement a pilot program modeled after the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, program in Eugene, Oregon.

The new emergency response program is tentatively slated to be rolled out by the end of the year.

City staffers have been working with a local advocacy group known as DASHR since January to craft the new program, officials announced last month. The same group helped craft a similar scheme in Denver, known as the Support Team Assisted Response, earlier this year. That group has responded to more than 500 calls, most of which are related to trespassing and wellness checks, according to Vinnie Cervantes, organizing director for DASHR.

Cervantes said the Aurora program will likely mirror the new efforts in Denver, ideally featuring an EMT or paramedic and mental health clinician responding to calls in a van or other vehicle.

The new program will dovetail with the work of the city’s standing Crisis Response Team, which Aurora police and Aurora Mental Health formed with grant funding in 2017. The group features one police sergeant, five officers, two clinicians and one clinician manager, according to city documents. The clinicians typically place subjects of mental health calls on 72-hour holds, admitting them to local hospitals for treatment.

“When a crisis occurs, people are taught to call 911 for help, but with mental health situations, first responders aren’t typically the best people to handle a mental crisis,” city staffers wrote in a memo on the program in 2019. “They typically put a band-aid on the situation and results in multiple calls because mental health issues are long term, and not solved on scene … (The Crisis Response Team) bridged the gap between medical personnel and first responders.”

Cervantes said the new program will work in collaboration with Aurora Mental Health and the crisis unit. The primary difference between the two programs will be police involvement: while the crisis crew is coordinated by Aurora police, the CAHOOTS pilot will have no direct ties to local officers. Police will not respond to calls with the two-person unit unless additional assistance is needed, officials said.

Citing data from the original CAHOOTS program in Oregon, Cervantes added that the $160,000 program will likely free up police resources and save the city money.

“As far as CAHOOTS, the real appeal of it is it takes $2 million dollars, which is such a small part of their budget to run a program that responds to almost 20 percent of their (911) calls,” he said of the work in Eugene.

Though Aurora has yet to publicly tabulate savings accrued from the Crisis Response Team, similar efforts in Seattle have annually saved $500,000 in wages, $6.5 million in jail and hospital stays and $3 million in lawsuits. Another outfit in Houston has saved more than $1 million per year for that city’s police and fire departments, according to data provided by Aurora officials.

Allison Hiltz, who serves as chairperson of the city’s public safety committee and has shepherded the creation of the program for several months, lauded her colleagues’ unanimous support of the new effort.

“By approving this pilot funding, council has demonstrated its willingness to explore a non-police centric model of mental health service delivery,” she said Monday. “I’m optimistic that this program will be successfully expanded and fully funded in the future.”

Also at the workshop Saturday, council members agreed to add an internal auditor, police spokesperson and mental health program manager to the city’s payroll. Each of those positions come with a salary more than $100,000 per year.

Those additions come amid lingering budget shortfalls that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The council is expected to formally vote on City manager Jim Twombly’s proposed $918 million budget next month.