Co-responder teams of police and mental health experts can better meet the needs of people in mental health crisis.
One night last June, 22-year-old Christian Glass called 911 for help with his stranded car. A little over an hour later he was dead.
Asked about weapons, Glass mentions tools his family says he used as an amateur geologist.
“I have two knives and a hammer, um, and a rubber mallet. I guess that’s a weapon?,” Glass said. “I’m not dangerous. I will keep my hands completely visible.”
But when deputies in Colorado’s Clear Creek County show up, Glass tells them he’s too scared to get out of his car.
Then they see the knife.
Over about the next hour, officers try to get him out.
Glass smiles — even makes a heart with his hands — but stays in the car.
Officers seem to realize glass is having a mental health crisis. A Colorado State Patrol sergeant notes Glass hasn’t done anything wrong.
“If there’s no crime and he’s not suicidal, homicidal or a great danger, then there’s no reason to contact him,” the sergeant says.
But for reasons that are unclear and now under investigation, officers eventually smash the car window.
What happens next is chaos, and then tragedy.
Officers shoot beanbags and tasers.
Finally, a deputy opens fire.
The next moments are too disturbing for TV. Even the police appear stunned.
Glass’ family says he was a gentle soul, an artist who had bouts of depression. His parents blame police for escalating a situation they say was never truly dangerous.
“We’re a very gentle, quiet family,” said Christian’s mother Sally Glass. “So that level of aggression and those officers really wasn’t in his world. He would have really struggled with that, you know, that would have been outside his comfort zone even to be spoken like that and treated like that.”
Nationwide last year, 101 people “behaving erratically” or having a mental health crisis were killed by police. What happened to Glass is exactly what many police departments across the country say they’re trying harder to prevent.
In Douglas County Colorado, Zachary Zepeski and Kalie Bryant are part of an innovative partnership. He’s a sheriff’s deputy, and she’s a licensed professional counselor with a master’s degree in mental health counseling.
They’re part of what’s called a co-responder team. Handling not only mental health calls, but as their shift starts, also checking in on people they’ve dealt with before.
“Sounds like they are concerned she may be ‘slipping’ is the word they use, again, into a mental health crisis,” Bryant said. “So we are just following up to see how she’s doing. To see what support we can offer her.”
Next, they get called to help with someone who appears to be in crisis.
As they arrive, a sergeant tells them the man may still be inside his home.
The man has committed no crime, but Zepeski and Bryant need to make sure he’s OK.
But rather than barge inside, potentially making things worse, the team holds off.
“We don’t try to go in an agitate a situation anymore,” Zepeski said. “There was no crime. The things that were broken were his own, you can break your own stuff. So that’s why we didn’t really force the issue.”
Eventually, they find out the man already left. But their work is just beginning.
“Now is kind of a waiting game,” Zepeski said. “We will keep this one on our radar so now we’ll know if something happens at this address again, that we have an idea of what’s going on inside that apartment.”
“I feel like that we have the ability to develop a relationship with these people and truly get to know them so that they know that they can call for us if they need it,” Bryant said.
In one year across Colorado, teams like this one responded to 15,000 calls and made nearly 8,000 follow-up visits.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock says before “co-responder” teams, people having a mental health crisis often ended up behind bars.
“We’re talking misdemeanor crimes, and these people were in the jail,” Spurlock said. “Not a place for someone who has a mental health disorder. We’re not equipped in the jail to treat them, or quite frankly even to house them.”
But more than half of Colorado’s counties do not have “co-responder” teams, including Clear Creek where Christian Glass was killed. His family wants officers held accountable.
“Christian’s killing is a stain on Clear Creek County and on Colorado,” said Christian’s father Simon Glass. “It was a murder by a Colorado official. It cannot stand.”
Newsy reached out to the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Department. They declined to give is an interview or statement. The district attorney and state investigators are now reviewing the case to see if any officers should face criminal charges. And the FBI and Justice Department tell Newsy they are aware of the case and will “take appropriate action” if they find evidence of federal criminal civil rights violations.