Leadership Interview: Sheriff Matt Lewis, Mesa County

Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis was first elected in November 2014 after being with the agency for more than 17 years. In this interview—which has been edited for length—he discusses his agency’s work with behavioral health crises.
Ascent: What issues do you and your officers confront in Mesa County when responding to people who are experiencing a behavioral health crisis? Where are there shortfalls in the current system?
Lewis: Unfortunately, we often meet people on their worst day. Sometimes they are the victim, sometimes they are the suspect. In the context of behavioral health, we see people with organic, diagnosed mental health issues on one end and substance-induced issues on the other. Everything along that spectrum, we respond to. The first thing we try to do is triage—and that gets into the second part of the question.
We’re very blessed to have many resources in our backyard. The challenge is having access to those resources when we need them. If I were to pinpoint one thing, the shortfall in the system is capacity. This can lead to a “We don’t have a better solution, so we’ll take this one” mindset. For example, at crux of a criminal event is a mental health issue. The suspect might be someone in need of treatment, of counseling services—any number of things. Law enforcement is not set up to fix that issue.
With no better solution, individuals end up in the emergency department, where they take up space and time from those who have more acute medical needs.
Ascent: What role does your department play in connecting people with the services they need?
Lewis: From a law enforcement standpoint, we’re the first responders, so our first job is triage. What is it I am seeing? What will make this better? We need to know the services available in our community and then make that connection. There are some specific ways we try to do this.
First, we have our Crisis Intervention Training program. We train our people to recognize when they’re dealing with someone in crisis, identify what the crisis is and then develop an appropriate response that will de-escalate the situation.
That training is very extensive and involved. It involves things like bringing in trained actors to roleplay some of the different mental health behaviors our officers will encounter in the field. This allows us to develop a repertoire of responses we can draw on to de-escalate those situations.
Second, we have a co-responder program. It’s a joint operation with the Grand Junction Police department. We put an officer and a clinician in a vehicle together to respond to people in crisis and try to stabilize the situation and bring resources to them.
It’s not “how can we stop this right now,” but it's more of a holistic approach, identifying the resources needed and trying to make a lasting impact. The idea behind it is that we can—and should—do a better job of connecting people with services.
To accomplish this, we bring the table all these different service providers with whom we have a relationship. When we have a recurring issue or a particularly challenging individual, and we have no clear solution, we can ask who has what resources to bring to bear on the situation.
The relationships we have with our fellow service providers have allowed us to come together and solve more problems, because everyone believes we are trying to do right thing rather than just make a referral and hope it goes away. Instead, we can capitalize on the strengths of each individual organization to identify root causes and make quality connections.
The last piece is our investigations unit. Our investigators are embedded with the department of human resources, child protection and adult protection. They are constantly sharing information and making and receiving referrals.
Ascent: What would you like the Western Colorado community to understand about your department’s work in this area? What would a better model look like?
Lewis: We take very seriously our responsibility in our community, not only to tackle crime and law enforcement concerns but to recognize that we’re often in contact with people in some level of crisis.
To be effective, we must recognize that some of the people and situations we deal with for what they are instead of trying to fit them into a neat little law enforcement box. To open the aperture, if you will, and take a more partnered, purposeful approach.
That’s what I want for this organization, and that’s what we’re working hard to do. It takes all of us at the table. It takes creativity and ownership and setting aside traditional boundaries and looks at how we find solutions. At the end of the day, everyone who is a service provider—all want to do the best thing for this community.
That’s what I want the people in the community to know, as well as some of the specific things we talked about earlier, such as the co-responder unit and the training.
So, what would an ideal situation look like? It would look like a central clearinghouse or triage that would route people to the appropriate resources. Throwing everything on the table, making all those different services available to everyone, is important. And that gets to the other thing I’m passionate about.
An ideal system would do a better job sharing information. I understand that so much of what each of us does needs to be confidential, and there is so much of what each of us does that doesn’t need to be. But sometimes, we get territorial with information. We need to find more opportunities to share more information. I think we can. We need to understand what information we possess and what we can legally share—and then figure out how to share that information.
Those two things would make a significant difference.
Collectively it’s amazing what we can do when we come together.