Criminal Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center
By Kevin Bliss
STAR Program Redirecting Mental Health Emergency Calls Away From Police a Success in Denver
USA Today reports that Denver, Colorado, is showing success with a new program that directs emergency 911 calls that deal with mental health issues, drug abuse, and homelessness to a two-person civilian team composed of a medic and clinician called the Support Team Assistance Response (“STAR”) pilot program.
Originally managed by the city’s safety department but since transferred to its public health department, STAR is the product of a group of members from the police department, health department, Denver 911, the Caring for Denver Foundation, Mental Health Center of Denver, and the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (“DASHR”), which traveled to Eugene, Oregon, to examine that city’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (“CAHOOTS”) initiative. Eugene’s program was launched in 1989 to respond to a range of mental health issues as a technique of reducing the harm that had resulted from police encounters with the same. As of 2017, CAHOOTS responders answered 17% of the total volume of police calls, eliminating any possibility of police violence in any of those responses.
Denver coordinated with several other Colorado cities to draft a new type of crisis response unit, one that might not end in the unfortunate death of someone suffering a mental health breakdown such as happened with 23-year-old Elijah McClain of Aurora, Colorado. The city launched the pilot program in June with a one two-man team staffed in a van roaming the streets from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The Washington Post reported that police fatally shoot hundreds of people experiencing mental health crises every year, nearly 1,400 since 2015. In the first six months of STAR in Denver, the ‘‘person-centric mobile crisis response’’ unit answered 748 of the 2,500 emergency calls that came their way. Not one response resulted in any abuse or arrest. Most of the calls were for the homeless (68%) and mental health issues (61%). Correspondingly, police answered 95,000 calls during the same timeframe. Fully operational, STAR could potentially take 3% or more of the police department’s total case load.
This year, the city has allocated $1.4 million to the program, enough to purchase four more vans, six two-man teams, and a full-time supervisor to expand the program’s response. “Overall, the first six months has kind of been a proof of concept of what we wanted,” stated Vinnie Cervantes, a founder of DASHR. “We’ve continued to try to work to make it something that is truly a community-city partnership.”
Denver follows several other cities developing similar programs as people call for defunding police due to the number of recent fatal shootings of people experiencing mental health issues nationwide. Los Angeles and San Antonio partnered police and mental health professionals as “co-responders” to answer mental health incidents. Chicago, Illinois, and Louisville, Kentucky are expected to follow suit this year. Aurora launches its STAR program this month.