Colorado Mental Health Institute Pueblo working on gentler approach to patient care

By: Tracy Harmon

Originally appeared in The Pueblo Chieftain

In what officials are describing as a “long overdue change,” law enforcement officers will take a step back from dealing with mental health patients in crisis at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo when a new plan is implemented in February.

Instead of uniformed correctional officers, clinical safety specialists will work to de-escalate incidents in a non-confrontational approach to “help create a more therapeutic environment for patients while narrowing the scope of police presence to investigations and transport,” said Dr. Robert Werthwein, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services which oversees the state hospital.

In a letter sent out to staff last week, Werthwein outlined the plan to move 45 correctional or ward officers to the reassigned role of clinical safety specialist. Instead of promoting safety from a policing standpoint, the staff reaction will be to “get away from a power struggle, come off as non-threatening and de-escalate the situation before it becomes an incident,” he told The Pueblo Chieftain.

The clinical safety specialists will focus on building a rapport with patients by engaging in the support services that bolster the care of those patients. They may be assisting with room checks, shower checks and escorting patients to other areas of the hospital instead of carrying out policing functions.

In the transition of creating a more therapeutic environment for patients, staff who take on the new role will maintain the same pay and grade levels.

Having unveiled the plan for staff last week, Werthwein said the department’s top officials plan to spend the next month listening to employees concerns and answering questions they may have before the transition is made.

He said state officials will assess the number of police officers needed to meet the reduced scope of work.

“Current vacancies in the police officer classifications will be included. If the reductions identified are greater than the vacancies available, the department will do everything within its ability to assist in finding new opportunities for any police officer affected by the change,” he wrote in the letter to staff.

“Adapting to change is difficult and that is why we want to take our time. We will get there,” he said.

Part of the reason for the slow approach is that the state hospital currently is operating in an “all hands on deck” format to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Werthwein said.

“It is difficult when some staff have to call off due to COVID protocol and particularly after Thanksgiving we had an increase in the number of people who were exposed to COVID.

“I have to really hand it to the staff — they have pitched in to help out. Patients with the virus are moved to COVID-positive units, plus we have one geriatric COVID unit,” he said.

The staff working in the virus units are placed on a higher tier, meaning they have been prioritized for quicker vaccinations due to their risk, he said.

Werthwein said he and a number of leaders in the discipline have opted to try the safe clinic environment approach and it is something they have worked on for quite some time.

“It speaks more to quality and promoting an environment that offers the best outcomes for both patients and staff,” he said.

The approach also aligns with industry standards as most hospitals take clinical approaches to incidents and do not react with police officers.

It is a plan that has the support of both Disability Law Colorado and Mental Health Colorado, Werthwein said.

Disability Law Colorado is the legal office that filed a lawsuit against the state hospital in 2011 in an effort to get the Colorado Department of Human Services to deal with the back log of pre-trial detainees who were languishing in jails across Colorado because the state hospital had failed to provide competency restoration treatment on a timely basis.

Mental Health Colorado has a “Care Not Cuffs” campaign that spotlights adoption of compassionate and sensible approaches to promoting health and safety rather than relying on policing tactics.

Mental Health Colorado’s Director of Communications Aubree Hughes applauded the “very significant changes in the way safety will be prioritized in the state mental hospital in Pueblo. These changes will not reduce the emphasis on safety; however, they will ensure that the safety of patients and staff is maintained with an emphasis on therapeutic purpose while minimizing confrontation and criminalization.”