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Audit finds $400k in mental health response funds unused by DPD

The Denver Police Department must return the money, but the agency said the audit ignored the success of the program and the pandemic's interference.

DENVER — The Denver Police Department (DPD) and Department of Public Safety (DPS) failed to spend about $400,000 in grant funds earmarked for its mental health "co-responder" program and were forced to return the taxpayer money, the city's auditor said Thursday. 

The agencies said they couldn't spend the portion of the grant dedicated to staffing during the pandemic shut down, the leftover funds are due to savings in reimbursements from Medicaid and the auditor did not consider the success of the program. 

"The report did not factor in the environmental, societal or economic factors that directly impacted this program – including a global pandemic, civil unrest and severe economic challenges that had major impacts on staffing and administrative capacity," the DPS said in a statement. 

The co-responder program in question sends mental health professionals alongside police officers to calls involving people in a mental health crisis. In the past year, the program has interacted with 2,878 people, DPD said. 

WellPower, the mental health organization contracted to respond alongside police said 98% of interactions did not result in arrest and it recommended two-thirds of people contacted to mental health treatment. 

"The need is certainly out there in the community for this kind of a program," said Denver auditor Timothy O'Brien. 

He said DPD spent about $1.8 million dollars of the grant from the taxpayer-funded Caring for Denver Foundation but left $438,000 unused because it is not managing the money sufficiently. 

"It's not pocket change," he said. "I think it could have been used, it should have been used." Instead, the money has been returned to the Caring for Denver Foundation -- where it could be re-distributed in another grant to DPD or other organizations. 

In a statement, DPD said a portion of the grant was designated for staffing, which was impacted by the height of the COVID pandemic. "The department was not able to spend these funds during this time as the program could not hire staff until later in 2020 due to COVID-19 shutdowns," the statement said. 

"We had the pandemic and there was a lot of turnover in their department and I understand that," said O'Brien. "They still had a responsibility under the grant to comply with those requirements."

His office also found that DPD spent too much grant money on administrative expenses and was late paying WellPower. The department of safety said it has since taken over DPD's finance team in an effort to "ensure closer oversight."

"I think the department’s response was healthy. They’re taking it seriously and I appreciate that," O'Brien said. He said the agencies took 24 of his office's 25 recommendations to avoid leftover money in the future.

DPS said the program met all intended goals and said it "values the role of the Auditor’s Office and is grateful for their attention to this, however, it is troublesome to see these findings presented in a way that ignores critical information directly related to the issues the report is attempting to address."

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