Photo: Mental Health Center of Denver

You probably need a reminder that not everything in 2020 is horrible, so please read this Denver Post story about Denver's new program that sends a paramedic and a mental health professional to answer 911 calls involving people who are having really shitty days but don't seem to be endangering anyone. The members of the Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program don't carry guns, and they don't show up with screaming sirens and flashing lights. Instead, they're there to help people in crisis and if possible, to get them connected to services that can help them afterwards.

Like for instance an unhoused woman who was sitting on a curb and sobbing because she was lost in an unfamiliar part of town and scared and hot and just completely unable to handle any of it. Social worker Carleigh Sailon

gave the woman a snack and some water and asked how she could help. Could she drive her somewhere? The woman was pleasantly surprised.

"She was like, 'Who are you guys? And what is this?'" Sailon said, recounting the call.

And nobody got shot or handcuffed or ended up with a knee on their neck. Nobody went to Emergency, nobody went to jail.


As it happens, the STAR program was rolled out on June 1, after years of planning, and just after the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd. Good timing, since people all over the country are starting to ask what it would look like if we completely reimagined policing, or even moved funding from militarized police departments into providing social services that could actually help people. Since then the STAR van (it has stripes, but no other markings that might frighten away people who may already be freaked out) has responded to more than 350 calls, and while the program is run under the auspices of the Denver PD, Sailon said the teams haven't had to call police for backup.

"We're really trying to create true alternatives to us using police and jails," said Vinnie Cervantes with Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, one of the organizations that helped start the program. [...]

"It really kind of proves that we've been working for the right thing, and that these ideas are getting the recognition they should," Cervantes said.

The other mental health professional who works in the program, Chris Richardson, said STAR is able to fill a real gap in emergency response, since not everything is a law enforcement matter:

It's amazing how much stuff comes across 911 as the general, "I don't know what to do, I guess I'll call 911." [...] Someone sets up a tent? 911. I can't find someone? 911.

The STAR van has responded to cases like an "indecent exposure" call that turned out to be an unhoused woman changing clothes in an alley because she didn't have anywhere more private. A lot of the calls involve people experiencing homelessness, or folks having mental health crises.

The STAR program is a six-month pilot, and it grew out of an existing "co-responder" program that sends mental health professionals along with police officers. That program has been around since 2016, and has 17 mental health professionals; in 2019, they responded to 2,223 calls. That program is being expanded to 25 mental health folks, and the groups that have funded STAR hope to spin it off as a city-funded service that's separate from the police department.

Sailon also pointed out that one of the advantages of not sending cops to a non-law enforcement call is that when she needs to take time to work with someone who needs service, she can. And the team is able to follow up to see how people are doing.

Denver's police chief, Paul Pazen, calls STAR "the future of law enforcement, taking a public health view on public safety," which is a refreshing perspective from the busting heads warrior cop attitude. Pazen says the goal is to "meet people where they are and address those needs and address those needs outside of the criminal justice system."

But before Donald Trump targets Denver for invasion by unidentifiable federal soldiercops, let's note that Pazen doesn't think alternatives like STAR mean his police department should be reduced in size, just that cops can instead focus their attention on dealing with violent crime and car crashes. (Whew, gotta keep that budget line safe!) But for reals, the idea that policing should be approached from a public health perspective is catching on, even among some police. For more on that, check out this podcast, nerds. You do not need to listen to it in a pod.

Between the police, the co-responder program, and STAR, says Richardson, dispatchers have a "continuum of response" to choose from when a 911 call comes in. So far, STAR has mostly responded to trespassing calls and requests for mental health checks, but the police department is also tracking calls to determine how many a potentially expanded STAR team could take.

Denver isn't the only city working on alternatives to policing like this. Albuquerque, New Mexico, which had such a bad record of cops abusing minority and homeless populations that the Justice Department intervened (back when the DOJ sometimes did justice), will be launching a new "Community Safety Department" next year, to handle calls that don't require cops. And other municipalities in Colorado are already consulting with Denver on starting their own STAR programs.

Since the City of Rochester, New York, just had most of its police leadership leave in the wake of March's police killing of Daniel Prude during a mental health crisis, maybe the mayor should be making some calls to New Mexico and Colorado.

[Denver Post / Why is This Happening? / Daily Beast / Denver Alliance for Street Health Response / Photo: Mental Health Center of Denver]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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