The police response to the mentally ill is under surveillance. Denver may offer a way forward.

DENVER – Calls come to 911 every day: A homeless man stands outside a liquor store, yelling and acting aggressively. A woman has a mental health crisis and says she cannot feel her body or her face. A man who was escorted by police 90 minutes ago returned and exposed himself and urinated on the buildings.

Instead of going to the police, this type of call is transferred to STAR, short for Support Team Assistance Response, a year-old program that sends a social worker and paramedic to low-level emergency calls. . Of the 1,351 calls STAR answered in the past year, none had to seek backup from the Denver Police Department.

STAR was deployed in June 2020 just as the nation was engulfed in outrage over the death of George Floyd below the knee of then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin and protesters demanded radical reform of the police.

Now STAR is expanding citywide and other communities across the country see it as a model for handling emergency calls involving unarmed mentally ill people in crisis.

Inspired by a 3-decade-old program in Eugene, Ore., STAR was also launched at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated stressors were escalating. Mental health-related calls in Denver were up 17% last year from the three-year average, according to a city report.

“We try to make people feel like they know what’s going on that day, and often times I just ask them, ‘What would be helpful to you right now? How can we solve this problem today? “” said Carleigh Sailon, clinical social worker who looks after the STAR van.

Like the call that came on a hot August day.

“A passerby called about a woman sitting on a sidewalk crying and drinking a beer, and she appeared to be in distress, and they thought she looked like she needed help,” said Sailon.

It turned out that the woman, who had no accommodation, found herself stranded in an unknown part of town. What she needed right now was a ride to a shelter. Sailon and the paramedic put her in the air-conditioned van and gave her snacks and water.

“She started to cry,” said Sailon, “and she said,“ I can’t believe there are people coming up and taking me back to where I needed to go.

The American Psychological Association said about 20% of police calls were for a mental health or addiction issue. A 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a mental health advocacy group, reported that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police.

Denver Police are receiving 40 hours of crisis intervention training compared to years of coursework for social workers. Sailon said STAR offers an important alternative to the one-size-fits-all approach.

“The police can be triggering, and if people have had adverse interactions with law enforcement in the past, it can have an impact on the way things go,” she said. “The team is really able to sit down with people in crisis and in awkward times and work on a solution rather than hitting the alert button and needing a backup all the time. . “

The 911 system does not send STARs in situations where people are armed or violent. Denver’s 911 system responded to nearly 6,400 calls from June 2020 through June 2021 that would have been STAR eligible. The team responded to an average of nine calls per day, or just under 3% of calls made by 911 in a year across the city. The majority involved trespassing, welfare checks, mental health issues and substance abuse.

“I certainly think the moment, the movement, that we are in right now is helping to educate the country for an alternative response,” said Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen. “If you can lighten your load on these low-level mental health calls, it frees up your officers to tackle the areas they’re best equipped for, like the violent crime issues we’re seeing across the board. country. “

The year-old STAR program sends a social worker and paramedic to low-level emergency calls and has been shown to be so effective in treating people in crisis that it’s spread across the city.

A Denver Public Safety report found that the STAR team – made up of Sailon, licensed clinical social worker Chris Richardson, and a rotating team of paramedics – were able to resolve the issues six minutes longer. quickly than the police without acquiring the high costs associated with the involvement of the fire services. , emergency medical services and hospitals.

The report also said that 34% of STAR calls came from DPD agents who showed up at the scene and asked the social worker and paramedic to take over.

“Our officers bought into this,” Pazen said. “I hear police say, ‘Hey, is a STAR van available? Can you get them to answer? ‘ I have supervisors and officers who say, “When can we have more STAR vans?” When can we get more coverage for STAR? ‘ and I share this with other police departments and police chiefs who are investigating this. “

More than 30 law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada have inquired about the program, a police spokesperson said. With $ 1.4 million already set aside and an additional $ 1 million requested, STAR is expected to grow from a van to four, ultimately covering 32 square miles seven days a week, 16 hours a day.

Andrew Dameron, director of Denver 911, attributes STAR’s effectiveness to a long history of partnerships with nonprofit community groups.

“What will drive us to success more than anything else is how many people have we actually been able to help maintain their sanity and their recovery? Said Dameron. “It’s one thing to send the van to someone who’s going through a crisis and then the van leaves and that person might be a little better off than they started out.

“If we can use the van as a method to educate people, connect them with a larger support structure, then they have a much better chance of success. “

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