Denver’s co-responder STAR program is expanding after receiving additional funding

KDVR Fox 31

by: Alex Rose

Posted: Feb 16, 2022 / 02:04 PM MST / Updated: Feb 16, 2022 / 02:49 PM MST

DENVER (KDVR) — An up-and-coming program that sends clinicians and paramedics to lower-level emergency calls has seen enough success in its first couple of years that Denver leaders voted to give them more money to expand through 2022.

Denver’s Support Team Assistance Response program started in June of 2020. They currently operate one van that goes out to calls with Denver Health paramedics and mental health clinicians with the Mental Health Center of Denver.New Denver program has clinician, paramedic respond to some mental health 911 calls instead of police 

“It’s a creative response to the community’s growing needs,” Chris Richardson with the Mental Health Center of Denver said. Richardson is the director of STAR and has been a part of its inception since a group of Denver stakeholders traveled to Eugene, Oregon to see a local co-responder program in that community.

“I think that we learned pretty quick during our pilot that was downtown corridor centric that we had something going that was positive, that we could really replicate citywide,” Richardson said.

And Monday night, Richardson got his wish. Denver City Council unanimously voted to award the STAR program a contract of just under $1.4 million to expand services through the end of the year.

That money will include increasing their fleet to include five additional vans, seven more mental health clinicians from the Mental Health Center of Denver and four more paramedics with Denver Health. It also includes the addition of two emergency medical technicians to the team.

The additional resources will help Richardson and his team serve more people who find themselves slipping through the system’s cracks.

“I think the ones that we consistently come across are individuals who have system fatigue or just ‘I don’t know what to do’ or ‘I don’t know how to access that’ or the barriers for these services were just so problematic that they just gave up,” Richardson said.Denver to expand STAR program for responding to mental health 911 calls 

Richardson said STAR also receives funding from Caring for Denver in the form of a matching grant, bringing their operating budget under $4 million. Since the summer of 2020 when the program launched, the team has answered more than 2,700 calls that would otherwise go to law enforcement, taking a load off their plate.

“It’s less about STAR being that savior for the moment, it’s how do we acknowledge that all these systems are working together to help our community to the best of our ability?” Richardson said.

And civilians aren’t the only ones calling for STAR services for low-level emergencies. Turns out, roughly 30% of their calls come from police who understand the co-responder team may be able to handle the situation more appropriately.

“I think it’s really good because it gives the citizen the acknowledgment when police recognize that they are the right people and when they are not the right people,” Richardson said. “This response isn’t time-sensitive. We are with that person until that crisis is done. It’s not ‘How do I get to the next call?’ it’s ‘How am I present with you right now?’”

A common concern for communities starting up programs like STAR is the fact that clinicians and paramedics may be going into dangerous situations without having the equipment afforded to police.

So far, Denver’s STAR program has not called for police backup during its 2,700 calls.

Still, Richardson said there are communities that have a mistrust for police and may be hesitant to reach out to 911 for help. This is one of the biggest challenges he will try to address going into 2022 with an expanded team.

“There’s always a learning curve with how do we get messaging out to communities across the city, and how do we do that in an effective way,” Richardson said. “How do we make sure that communities that may have been 911 resistant or emergency response resistant, how do we get them knowledge that there is an alternative out there that they can reach out to?”