Denver's Program to Dispatch Mental Health Teams Instead of Police is So Successful it is Expanding 5-Fold
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After dispatching mental health teams, instead of police officers, to certain 911 emergency calls, the city of Denver is proclaiming their pilot program a huge success—and expanding it significantly.
Since June 2020, the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) has deployed medical and behavioral health clinicians to respond to over 2,200 low risk calls reporting trespassing, intoxication, or mental health crises involving poverty, homelessness or addiction.
In all that time, STAR teams have never called for police back-up due to a safety issue, according to their January report.
In January, the City Council unanimously allocated a $1.4 million contract for the STAR program’s expansion, paying for five additional white vans and hiring 7 clinicians, 4 paramedics, and two emergency medical technicians.
The Denver Post reports that STAR teams have driven hundreds of miles, assisted suicidal people and schizophrenics; they’ve also handed out water and socks and connected people to shelter, food and resources.
STAR’s advisory team, consisting of 15 volunteer citizens, hope that with six vans, they can respond to more than 10,000 calls a year. Funding for the expansion was bolstered by a $1.4 million grant from the Caring For Denver Foundation.
“This innovative approach—meeting people where they are, with the right services, at the right time—is a game-changer for Denver,” said Bob McDonald, DDPHE Executive Director and Public Health Administrator for the City of Denver.”
Importantly, it is also saving money for the city. If the STAR vans can help someone in crisis, that frees up police to handle a robbery or domestic violence call.
“STAR is minimizing unnecessary arrests and unnecessary costs—whether that be jail costs or emergency room costs,” Councilwoman Robin Kniech said.
Denver residents can specifically request STAR assistance by calling 720-913-STAR (7827) or by calling the non-emergency number 720-913-2000.
“When STAR pulls up, people in crisis can be assured that two non-judgmental, client-centered, supportive people who are willing to listen are getting out of that van to help,” said Chris Richardson, LCSW, the Mental Health Center of Denver’s Associate Director of Criminal Justice.
Other cities in Colorado, including Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins, have called Denver with intentions to start similar emergency services to dispatch unarmed health professionals.
Nearby Aurora was among the first to replicate the model, launching their Aurora Mobile Response Team in September.
Data collected from 759 of the residents served so far shows that nearly three-quarters had been medically diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, or major depression.
“It’s the future of law enforcement,” Denver police Chief Paul Pazen said in a 2020 interview with the Denver Post. “We want to meet people where they are and address those needs and address those needs outside of the criminal justice system.”