Social Workers Instead of Police? Denver’s 911 Experiment Is a Promising Start
Instead of a police cruiser, a van with bottled water and snacks. Photo: Courtesy of Caring for Denver
A 911 dispatch looks about the same no matter where you are in the U.S.: sirens, strobe lights atop police cruisers, and first responders armed with guns and pepper spray, the reason for the call notwithstanding. But if you dial 911 in Denver, you might be greeted instead by a mental-health clinician and a paramedic driving a customized van equipped with food, water, and blankets. For the past six months, the city’s Support Team Assisted Response program, known as STAR, has been dispatching social workers instead of cops on nonemergency calls, with astoundingly good outcomes. According to a report released last month, STAR responded to 748 incidents — up to six calls per day — and none of the calls required backup from police, led to arrests, or resulted in jail time. Several of the incidents illustrate just how far the new approach is from the old. In one example from earlier this year, someone called 911 because a man walking around barefoot in downtown Denver had become agitated (not surprising, as it was only five degrees outside). The STAR responders bought the man shoes.
The program’s roots go back to 2016, when a dozen social workers started riding along as co-responders with Denver police on certain calls. The program was dramatically expanded after the passage of a ballot measure in 2018 that directed $45 million in sales-tax revenue per year to fund mental-health and substance-misuse resources in the city. It’s up to the police dispatcher to direct the call to STAR, and so far only about 3 percent of all 911 calls are diverted away from police. A full one-third of the incidents that STAR responds to are called in by officers themselves, typically when they know the team would be a better fit than police would — and that’s really the goal, says Lorez Meinhold, executive director of the Caring for Denver Foundation. “Whether you’re talking about STAR or co-responders, it’s about those calls that go into 911,” she tells Curbed, “how we direct them away from the justice system and into care.”
Before setting up the STAR program, Meinhold traveled with a Denver cohort of social workers and mental-health professionals to Eugene, Oregon, to meet with leaders of Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS, which has become the gold standard of crisis-intervention programs. Introduced in 1989, CAHOOTS now takes up to 20 percent of all 911 calls, saving the city an estimated $15 million per year by avoiding police overtime and emergency-room visits. In a 2020 NPR interview, CAHOOTS crisis worker Ebony Morgan said she joined the team after her own father had been killed during a police encounter, realizing the potential of the program to avoid such a tragedy. “In 30 years, we’ve never had a serious injury or a death that our team was responsible for,” she said. “And I think that’s important to note.”
While Meinhold agreed that the CAHOOTS model has been exceptionally effective, she also saw that the needs of Eugene, a college town with a population of 168,000, were vastly different from the needs of Denver, a city of 750,000 within a metropolitan region of 3 million. Although the ballot measure had been broadly popular — over 70 percent voted yes — there was concern that residents might need to warm up to the idea of unaccompanied social workers’ responding to 911 calls. But, by chance, when STAR took its first call on June 1, 2020, Black Lives Matter 5280 activists had been marching throughout Denver for four days to protest the killing of George Floyd as well as local police encounters that had resulted in the beatings or deaths of unarmed Black residents (resulting in a lawsuit filed against the Denver Police Department for unconstitutional use of force). Suddenly, Denver’s initiative was being held up nationwide as an example — larger cities are launching similar efforts; San Francisco now has two “street crisis” teams as of last month and New York City wants to pilot a program in Harlem — even though it had been proposed under different circumstances. “We were never trying to say, ‘This money needs to come out of the police,’” says Meinhold — and, in fact, the program remains closely partnered with DPD. But she believes the demonstrated social benefits and cost savings will incrementally increase the proportion of calls that go to STAR, just like in Eugene. “Our thought was that we can pilot it and within that first six months, work to expand it to more districts.” (It’s now limited to certain neighborhoods, and only operates Monday through Friday from 10 to 6.)
In the early days of the STAR program, some of the marches organized in the city were demanding justice for Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man who had died after an encounter with police in Aurora, a small city adjacent to Denver. On the evening of August 24, 2019, a call had been made to 911 describing a “suspicious” person walking near a busy roadway, gesturing erratically. “You would think this would be a call that a STAR or CAHOOTS model would be appropriate to respond to,” says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who led an independent investigation on McClain’s death released last month. Instead, McClain was apprehended and restrained by police, and first responders knocked him out with an injection of a powerful sedative, ketamine; he died three days later. In fact, one of the three officers had been trained in crisis intervention, but did not intervene to stop the use of force, which, to Smith, illustrates that the department did not value the training. But it also illustrates the limits of police reform — and how different the response would be just three miles west. After McClain’s death, new policies in Aurora now require that responding police must only determine if a crime is, indeed, being committed. If not, they’re supposed to drive away. McClain, it turned out, had been making strange gestures because he was listening to his headphones and was waving his hands to the music, says Smith. “Had they spent 30 seconds watching him under the new policy, they might have let him go home.”
While these types of approaches might successfully divert people from the justice system to the health-care system, the country’s mental-health response has its own problems, notes Smith, who spent five years as a civil-rights attorney at the Department of Justice during the Obama administration. “If you have a functioning health-care system, it’s great to have these policing alternatives,” he says. “Right now there’s a failure of the social-services network that prevents people from going into crisis in the first place.” What social workers really need are more options — the term of art is “referral avenues” — that provide comprehensive alternatives to criminalization, says Melvin Wilson, senior policy consultant for the National Association of Social Workers, who co-authored an October 2020 report on pre-arrest diversion and 911 alternatives. “Eventually it will shake out to be more of a community-based model, but we don’t want to be replacing police,” he says. “This national discussion of reinvestment and moving money away from police is really about creating more funding in communities to bring more people into local mental-health agencies.” That might include creating an entirely separate number to call; it’s estimated that up to one half of the 240 million 911 calls made in the U.S. each year involve people with a mental illness or disability. Last year, Congress designated 988 as a national suicide-prevention hotline, but that type of service could be expanded to pick up where 911 leaves off, says Wilson, and include a “community responder” dispatch to address all mental-health crises.
Meinhold agrees that the root of the problem is the underfunding of local health systems. “We have not addressed mental health,” she says. “But until we improve the system, we have to create these diversion points to help connect people to care.” She points to an instance where 911 was called to de-escalate a situation at an urban camping site. According to police who arrived on the scene, a homeless woman was acting aggressively. But in STAR’s report, a woman who had a developmental disability was afraid because police had been conducting anti-homeless sweeps in the area. After social workers spoke with her, she was able to communicate that she actually had a place to stay and medication she needed to take, both of which were provided. “It’s the same person — it’s just how the call comes in,” says Meinhold. “We build these programs and systems that become very siloed. But it’s important that we put the people first.”