For the past six months in Denver, mental health professionals, not police officers, began responding to certain nonviolent 911 calls. A new program in Denver, known as the Support Team Assisted Response Program, or STAR, directs a two-person team consisting of a paramedic and a mental health clinician in a van to respond to nonviolent 911 calls instead of traditional uniformed police officers. STAR currently operates from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. on weekdays, and in just that limited operating window, STAR has been able to respond to 748 calls. In the nearly 750 calls that STAR responded to, not a single person was arrested, and police assistance was not needed a single time.
Support for Expansion
Even on the currently limited hours that STAR is operating on, it is projected that STAR could successfully divert 3% of 911 calls away from the police, a result that has both criminal justice reform advocates and law enforcement officers excited. Chief Paul Pazen of the Denver Police Department has voiced his support for expanding the STAR program to be available at all hours and suggested an additional 3 million in funding be provided for the expansion of STAR. In 2021, STAR’s budget will total 1.4 million dollars which will be used to acquire four new vans and six new two-person teams to add to STAR’s response services.
STAR has been incredibly effective, particularly in addressing homelessness and mental health needs previously only dealt with through the criminal justice system. Of the people STAR has interacted with, 68% have been homeless, and 61% struggle with some sort of mental health condition, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. These early results are promising, as one of the major critiques of the current American justice system by both police and reform advocates is that the police have been used as a catch all to deal not just with crime, but with America’s homelessness and mental health problems as well, which in the past has resulted in tragic and at times fatal results. Expanding STAR will help to ease the pressure on the police department and reduce the number of potentially highly confrontational interactions between someone experiencing a mental health crisis and a police officer who has not been properly trained to respond to such a crisis.