STAR Team. Photo: Kevin J Beaty for Denverite
STAR Team. Photo: Kevin J Beaty for Denverite

Denver’s STAR program is a step in the right direction toward more effective policing

In its first few months of operation, the team of medics and mental health specialists has fielded upwards of 2,500 emergency calls.


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Throughout the summer of 2020, the U.S. mourned the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, as protests and racial justice campaigns germinated across the nation and the world. 

Big names in the food industry rebranded their products to distance themselves from racist caricatures, Netflix unveiled a collection of films, TV series and documentaries highlighting Black talent and stories, and Mississippi rid its state flag of the Confederacy. 

While many of these moves were necessary, to the activists out risking their lives and safety in the streets, it all felt like a performance rather than the real change they were fighting for. 

The primary call to action that activists were demanding from state and federal governments was simple: defund the police, and reallocate that funding to social services such as education and community programs that work to reduce the painful impacts of substance use issues, mental illness and homelessness. 

As Philadelphia residents witnessed with the heartbreaking case of Walter Wallace Jr., the vast majority of police officers are not properly trained in how to handle people going through a mental health crisis. 

According to a Washington Post database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers, law enforcement is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people experiencing mental health crises every year. Since 2015, police have fatally shot nearly 1,400 people with mental illness, according to the database. 

Several activists, like Bree Newsome, suggested that cops be replaced with mental health care and social workers who are more equipped to de-escalate these sensitive situations.

The Denver police department has taken the initiative to rethink their approach to community safety, by implementing the Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) pilot program. 

This program replaces traditional law enforcement responders with health care workers for certain emergency calls. 

Prior to STAR, Denver 911 operators transferred all calls to police or fire department first responders. But now, there is a third track team consisting of a medic and a clinician that respond to “person-centric crisises” from 10 a.m to 6 p.m on weekdays. 

The program, which launched in June 2020, has reported very promising results in its six-month progress report. It aims to provide more fitting responses to community members experiencing problems related to mental health, substance use disorders, depression, poverty, and homelessness. 

Throughout these first few months, Denver received more than 2,500 emergency calls that were directed to the STAR team, and they were able to respond efficiently to 748 of those calls. 

None of the responses required police assistance, and no arrests were made. 

Most of the calls involved cases of trespassing and welfare checks. Approximately 68% of people contacted were experiencing homelessness.

There were mental health issues in 61% of cases, mainly schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and 33% of people had comorbid conditions, which is true of many people living with mental illness. 

Carleigh Sailon, a social worker from the Mental Health Center of Denver, who works for the STAR team, said she always takes a “non-judgmental, client-centered, supportive” approach when assisting people in a crisis. 

“The intent is to send the right response, not a one-size fits all response. If the STAR van can handle someone in crisis that frees up police to handle a robbery or domestic violence call, that’s an incredible success,” Sailon said. 

Although this is not exactly the systemic justice that many activists called for, it’s a step in the right direction when it comes to handling more sensitive cases with grace, proper skills and respect.


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