Meet the First Chief of Mental Health Services

Published on September 29, 2021

Doctor Nikki Johnson takes a photo in front of an American flag for the Denver Sheriff Department

Hello Denver Community Members, 

As the first Chief of Mental Health Services for the Denver Sheriff Department (DSD), I am humbled to have the opportunity to connect with each and every one of you through our community newsletter (and hopefully many of you in person, as well).   

Because we are the second largest psychiatric facility in Colorado, it is my desire to lead the transformative efforts for individuals within our custody who are experiencing serious mental illness (SMI). As part of this effort, we are in the process of recruiting for and hiring a Crisis Response Team (CRT), which will include mental health professionals working alongside deputy sheriffs as they respond to crises involving individuals with SMI. Our goal is to not only decrease the number of use-of-force incidents involving individuals with SMI, but also to decrease the total number of crises within our jails. This team will develop therapeutic rapport with our highest-needs individuals, ensuring each of them is treated with humanity in every respect during their stay with us. In addition, they will use evidence-based counseling and de-escalation techniques to navigate challenging crises. This will be a collaborative effort between the DSD, the CRT and our behavioral health provider, the Denver Health and Hospital Authority (DHHA).   

On August 12, 2021, we had the opportunity to record a segment for “Your City Now” with Denver 8 TV. This was a chance for us to show you – the community – our new Mental Health Step-Down Unit. This unit – a step down from our Special Management Units – has an open dorm setting; individuals are encouraged to learn and utilize prosocial communication and coping skills to use with one another and the deputies in the unit. The deputies are also encouraged to use incentives, Crisis Intervention Team training skills, and alternative work assignments for the purpose of behavior management. Since opening the unit three months ago, we have seen a significant decrease in overall incidents with this population.   

Having worked in jails and prisons for over 15 years now, I have seen the challenges present for individuals leaving our custody. Approximately 64% of incarcerated individuals at the DSD have either past or current mental health symptoms or diagnoses. In addition to finding a place to live, finding a new job, and reconnecting with family, friends and the community, these individuals also have to navigate their disability. This may include adhering to a medication regime, learning valuable coping skills, attending treatment sessions, and managing the day-to-day stigma of having a mental illness.  

The DSD wants to thank all of you for playing a part in the successful reentry process. These individuals are our neighbors, friends, and family members, and many of them want to get out of jail to be productive members of the Denver community. We cannot make this happen without your support.   

All the best, 

Dr. Nikki Johnson