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Denver STAR Program: When Mental Health Workers Respond to 911 Calls

In June 2020, the Denver STAR program—a group of mental health professionals trained to respond to 911 calls—launched in Denver, Colorado, just as protests against police brutality erupted country-wide. Since June, the Denver STAR program has been highly successful. Fewer cases of excessive police force and arrests have led to continued funding for the program. Learn more about the Denver STAR program and the potential for country-wide use of this policing alternative.

Mass Incarceration and Police Brutality in the U.S.

With over 2.2 million Americans behind bars, the U.S. is the world leader in mass incarceration. Of those incarcerated, over 57 percent are Black or Latinx, despite only making up 29 percent of the U.S. population.

Communities of color are not only over-represented inside prisons, but also in accounts of police brutality. In just the past year, the police have shot and killed 985 people. Despite consisting of only 13 percent of the U.S. population, Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by the police than white men.

Incarcerated individuals are also more likely to experience mental health or substance abuse issues than the general population. More than half of people in prison experience some form of mental health issue, while between 10 and 25 percent suffer from extreme mental illness, including schizophrenia and major affective disorders.

Compare that to an estimated 65 percent of U.S. prisoners who have a substance use disorder (SUD) and it is no secret that the U.S. has institutionalized responding to mental health issues with prison time.

When the Denver STAR program launched in June of 2020, it set out to address these inequities. What if mental health workers responded to 911 calls instead of the police? Could the Denver STAR program reduce local cases of police brutality and arrests for mental health and substance abuse?

Denver STAR Program: Support Team Assisted Response

Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod is passionate about ending the criminalization of mental illness and substance abuse. In 2018, Herod launched the Caring for Denver ballot initiative, which allocated $30 million to create more mental health and substance-use services in Denver. Thus, creating the Denver STAR program.

What If Mental Health Workers Responded to 911 Calls? Denver STAR Program

In her TEDxMileHigh Talk, Representative Herod explores what might happen if the police do not respond to every 911 call. What happens when some 911 calls are diverted to social workers, substance abuse counselors, health providers, or other trained professionals who will not use force? What happens when people experiencing a mental health crisis are provided with mental health resources, instead of being arrested?

As Representative Herod explains, in some cases, calling 911 can be the beginning to the end of someone’s life. This is often due to the police not having the tools necessary to respond to a mental health crisis. As Herod states, “nearly 50 percent of victims of police brutality have … a mental health disability.”

“To fix the mass incarceration issue, we must look critically at every piece of the puzzle, find out what’s working and fix what’s not. If there’s one thing that’s clearly not working, it’s the one-size-fits-all approach.”

Herod asks, “Why are we asking our police and our prisons to fix our mental health crisis?” The Denver STAR program is the first of many potential solutions to this problem.

Denver STAR Program: Evaluated

Early Success

In the first six months of the program, STAR resolved a total of 748 incidents—up to six calls a day—that involved no force, arrests, or jail. These incidents took place during the STAR operating hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in neighborhoods with high 911 call rates. In one case, someone called 911 because a man with no shoes in 5-degree weather was becoming agitated. The Denver STAR program provided him with shoes and resolved the issue without any further disturbance.

The early success of the program has led officials to allow STAR to expand and handle 3 percent of the total 911 calls in Denver. (This would equal around $11 million dollars in funding to expand the program.)

Ideas for Improvement

In the official evaluation of the program, the city indicates a few areas to improve the program. To expand accessibility, the city suggests adding wheelchair functionality to the STAR vans. There are also recommendations to include a system for measuring the long-term outcomes of the program.

It states, “Future evaluations should focus on an individual’s interactions with the criminal justice system post-intervention and fidelity to established treatment programs as a result of their initial assessment by the STAR team.” In the next couple of months, the city may be adding four to six more vans and a full-time supervisor to the team.

Carleigh Sailon, a STAR social worker, told the Denverite that more vans, food, and blankets, in addition to after-hour and weekend shifts, are necessary to improve the program. Melvin Wilson, senior policy consultant for the National Association of Social Workers, explained further. He said, “What social workers really need are more options that provide comprehensive alternatives to criminalization.”

The Potential Future for Nation-Wide Use of the Denver STAR Program

While the Denver STAR program gathered inspiration from the CAHOOTS team in Oregon, larger cities are launching similar programs, including San Francisco and New York City. Hopefully, these initiatives can become national policy, reducing mass incarceration and accounts of police brutality.

Further Learning

If you would like to learn more about the alternatives to police in 911 calls, check out these resources:

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