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Otero County submits mental health grant for sheriff's office, facilities grant for courthouse

Christian Burney
Fowler Tribune
Otero County applied for two grants recently, one to support mental health services for Otero County Sheriff's Office and another to support a partial remodeling of Otero County Courthouse where the courtrooms and offices are located.

Otero County has submitted two grants to the state that await approval, said Mollie Brown of the Commissioner's Office at the Nov. 2 Board of County Commissioners public meeting.

One grant was submitted to the Peace Officers Mental Health Support Grant Program on behalf of the sheriff's office while another was submitted to the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission.

The Peace Officers Mental Health Support Grant Program is offered through the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. According to DOLA, the program exists to provide financial support to law enforcement agencies for mental health services such as:

"On-scene response services to support peace officers’ handling of persons with mental health disorders; and Counseling services to peace officers; Assistance for development and implementation of polices to support peace officers who are involved in shootings or a fatal use of force; Training and education programs that teach the symptoms of job-related mental trauma and how to prevent and treat such trauma; Peer support programs."

Brown and Undersheriff Matthew Wallace worked on the grant application together, she said.

On Tuesday Wallace provided insight into the services the grant would fund. A peer support group has been around about a year, Wallace said, but it hasn't received any funding. The Peace Officers Mental Health Support Grant would provide funding for the peer support group, which would not only benefit sheriff's deputies but other first responders such as firefighters, EMS personnel and police officers.

"Looking at this grant application was sort of two-fold as far as what it could do for the sheriff's office and other first responders in the area," said Wallace. "Part one was funding the peer support group that is in Otero County. That's made up of law enforcement, fire and EMS. The idea behind the peer support group is basically being able to be there for first responders, not just our agency, but other first responders; firefighters, EMS personnel, police officers, troopers, folks in that field when they deal with critical incidents that are very difficult to deal with ..."

"It's a way of having people you can talk to with a degree of confidentiality without having to go to a formal therapist. More beneficial than talking to a therapist because it's somebody that's been there, that can relate, than can understand some of the things that they're going through."

The peer support group serves as a network for one-on-one sessions between first responders who need someone to talk to. It doesn't host large sessions between multiple people because of the possibility of causing more trauma, Wallace said.

The undersheriff explained that in the past, after a critical incident that could possibly cause secondary trauma, first responders would go through what Wallace called a critical incident debrief.

"But now we're hearing from medical health professionals that that could actually be causing additional trauma to the people that may have been on scene that didn't experience the perspective that other people had in relation to that scene," said Wallace.

He couldn't share any specific examples due to confidentiality reasons, but Wallace offered one from his own experiences:

"I recall specifically, I was on one, where it was my understanding that the person was going to survive the incident, and I had to learn in a critical incident debrief that the person was not going to," said Wallace. "That was not a good way to find out. What they're founding out now just by communication with mental health professionals is that instead of getting everybody together and everyone's in one room talking about this stuff, maybe it's better to have a peer that you can go to and say, 'Hey, I'm having a hard time with this one.' And just have somebody to open up to."

In some cases, sheriff's deputy might feel more comfortable talking to a professional therapist, however. That's where the second piece of the Peace Officers Mental Health Support Grant funds would come into play if the grant is accepted.

The grant would fund the use of services offered by Code 4 Counseling based in the Denver Metro Area, Wallace said. Wallace wants to reserve preset time slots for the sheriff's deputies' professional counseling services in case they need it.

"The reason we chose this particular group (Code 4 Counseling) is they specialize with working with first responders," said Wallace. "I thought that was really important because that's all they do. They have a better understanding of what our deputies go through and a better understanding of what our deputies' needs are. I thought that was really important to pre-fund those slots for our folks."

Brown said at the Nov. 2 Board of County Commissioner's meeting that the grant request asks for $7,800 in funds to pay for 10 Telehealth sessions which would be over zoom or phone, as well as, " ... 1.5 days of in-person wellness checks and one year of an ongoing peer support group for the Otero County Sheriff's Department. The application was accepted for review without issue and we should be receiving a response."

Brown said two separate entities would provide the counseling should the grant request be accepted.

The second grant request the county submitted was to the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission, on which 16th Judicial District Judge Mark MacDonnell also serves as the commission chair. The Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission provides funding for supplemental grant funds to counties for assistance with courthouse facility projects.

The request was for a 50% matching grant for a total of $151,273. The funds, if granted, would assist Otero County with the partial remodeling of the west side of Otero County Courthouse, Brown said.

"It is a partial remodel of the west side of the courthouse and the creation of a single entry atrium. And again, this was accepted for review without any issue," said Brown.

The county has been searching for a way to address numerous longstanding infrastructure issues with the courthouse as well as the sheriff's office jail.

The county was primed to pitch a Justice Center Master Plan ballot initiative, which if passed by voters would have funded an overhaul and the consolidation of some courthouse facilities in addition to the county jail, but the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the county to hold out on pursuing that project to avoid undue burden and stress on county employees and residents.

Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at cburney@ljtdmail.com. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the La Junta Tribune-Democrat at lajuntatribunedemocrat.com/subscribenow.