Should Carbondale stay in drug task force or spend on mental health? | PostIndependent.com

Should Carbondale stay in drug task force or spend on mental health?

Ryan Summerlin
rsummerlin@postindependent.com

Would Carbondale’s money be better spent by continuing to dedicate a police officer to the region’s drug task force, Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, or by instead putting that money toward a mental health professional?

The town’s trustees are contemplating this question now, having weighed the task force’s value at their regular meeting last week.

The board wasn’t in favor of withdrawing from TRIDENT outright, but this could be the start of a future discussion on how much to invest in enforcement and mental health.

Carbondale dedicates one police officer to TRIDENT, which equates to about $90,000 to $95,000 per year. As the town works with a very tight budget, Trustee Frosty Merriott said he wants to consider why investing in enforcement is a better “bang for the buck” than investing in a mental health (a service where the Roaring Fork Valley is lacking) or another school resource officer.

Merriott cited the Denver Police Department, which has recently put on its payroll six mental health professionals who will accompany officers on calls dealing with people potentially in need of those services.

“I’m not doing this because I’ve got an ax to grind with TRIDENT or anyone else,” said the senior trustee. “I look at this as more of a social issue than a criminal issue.

“Are we continuing the failed war on drugs? Would we be better served with a $100,000 mental health professional” or an officer for local schools? Merriott asked.

Trustee Heather Henry wanted to steer clear of posing the question as an “either/or” decision between enforcement and mental health.

Henry doesn’t support pulling all of Carbondale’s investment out of TRIDENT and putting it toward something like an SRO because a range of approaches needs to be available. Law enforcement needs to be able to approach young people who are using drugs as well as an organized cartel that’s manufacturing and dealing.

“I really believe those resources need to tackle it on a lot of different points,” she said.

For many years, the drug fighting resources have stayed on the enforcement side and not gone into education, mental health and pulling drugs off the streets, said Henry.

Just as the region has pooled its resources to fund TRIDENT to do a job bigger than any one department could do on its own, these communities should pool resources for a regional, on-call mental health service, said Henry. “TRIDENT’s efficiency and effectiveness is only there because of those pooled resources.”

Trustee Katrina Byars said the town should pursue the mental health services funding it’s entitled to through Garfield County Health and Human Services and the state.

“I agree that we have a great need for mental health resources in this valley, and finding some way to fund it, and I think it needs to be more than at the local level, would be great,” said Police Chief Gene Schilling.

Short of having some mental health professionals on staff, Lt. Chris Wurtsmith said he wants all officers to undergo training to deal with mentally unstable people.

“I believe in that 110 percent, but I also believe we have to make it difficult for people to deal drugs, because I just don’t want it out in the open,” said the lieutenant, who recalled some of his on-duty experiences of families ripped apart and businesses collapsing over drug addiction.

Nearby communities that aren’t members of TRIDENT, such as New Castle, can still call on the task force for assistance in a case, said Schilling.

But as a nonmember, New Castle would have a lower priority, he said.

“We all want to reduce drug use,” but the question is whether being a member of TRIDENT really stems access to and use of drugs, said Trustee Ben Bohmfalk.

“I don’t know if it necessarily reduces the amount of drugs or drug usage, but a lot of what it reduces is the ancillary stuff: property crimes, weapons offenses, some things that aren’t necessarily the drugs themselves,” Schilling replied.

As the level of crime increases and becomes more organizational, that’s where TRIDENT has a lot more expertise, said Schilling.

The board plans to take the issue up again at a future work session.