The El Paso County Sheriff's Department and Emergence Health Network fielded three crisis intervention teams this week. (Photo courtesy of the Sheriff's Department)

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Department has established three crisis intervention teams to help keep El Pasoans dealing with mental health emergencies away from jail.

Crisis intervention teams are designed to improve law enforcement officers’ ability to safely intervene, link individuals to mental health services and divert them from the criminal justice system when appropriate.

The Sheriff’s Department partnered with Emergence Health Network to pair a deputy with a clinician to respond together to calls involving mental illness, with an emphasis on de-escalating tense situations.

The El Paso Police Department, which also partners with EHN, has 14 CITs as part of its program that launched about two years ago.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said crisis intervention teams help to get professionals to the scene to provide a more appropriate and strategic response.

Sheriff Richard Wiles

“When citizens call the police for a loved one or individual suffering from a mental health crisis, they expect a response that will provide protection from harm and a path of treatment,” Wiles said. “These types of calls can be very challenging and should, when possible, be handled by mental health professionals.”

El Paso County Sheriff Commander Ryan Urrutia said the three teams finished training April 9 and started shifts Monday serving all of the unincorporated areas of El Paso County, including Fabens and San Elizario.

“Every call is different. There’s no one way to handle the call, but the ultimate goal is to connect members of the community, the criminal justice system, and mental health,” Urrutia said. “Before we were missing that element in the field, we were just connecting people with the criminal justice system.”

Urrutia said all266 deputies have a state mental health peace officer certification. The Sheriff’s Department eventually wants to have 14 crisis teams serving the community. He said the first-year funding for the three start-up teams totaled $340,000, which was approved by the El Paso County Commissioners Court earlier this year.

Rene Hurtado, Emergence Health Network’s chief of staff, said the new program for the Sheriff’s Office shows there is a need and shows the program is working.

“We’re excited that we’ll be able to reach more people and they’re going to have access to behavioral health services, especially in those parts of the county, where access is difficult at times,” he said.

Hurtado said with both major law enforcement agencies implementing CIT programs, the effort becomes a step toward a metropolitan approach.

He said he believes both the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department are open to working together and possibly intermingling services if the need arises.

“I think that’s the ultimate goal, to make it seamless. So it’s exciting that we have these other teams working together,” Hurtado said. “I think that’s the goal for everyone. Now that we have more resources, more entities, let’s take a true metropolitan approach. We’re excited about that.”

Cover photo: The El Paso County Sheriff’s Department and Emergence Health Network fielded three crisis intervention teams this week. (Photo courtesy of the Sheriff’s Department)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...