Some Denverites can now call 911 to get help from a mental health professional and paramedic instead of police in an emergency
Denver, CO – On Monday, June 1st, an alternative emergency response service for mental health, substance use, and other public health emergencies was dispatched for the first time in Denver as part of a pilot program known as Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) that will be run for 6 months in central Denver before its intended expansion to the rest of the city. The STAR service is a mobile crisis intervention in which a van carrying a mental health clinician and a paramedic is dispatched to provide free medical care, first aid, or mental health support for a broad range of non-criminal emergencies such as drug overdoses, suicidal individuals, mental illness problems, intoxication, and more. The STAR service is dispatched through Denver’s 911 communications center, and it is intended to divert these types of calls away from police officers and toward mental health and medical professionals. The new initiative is modeled on the Crisis Assistance Helping Out in The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon which has been staffed and managed by local social service agency White Bird Clinic since 1989.
During its first week, STAR personnel have already conducted welfare checks, provided support to individuals experiencing suicidal ideation, reconnected people with their community service providers, and assisted with other types of crisis situations. The STAR van has been and will continue to be dispatched to support both people experiencing homelessness and those living in personal residences. STAR’s unarmed personnel have no law enforcement function or authority and offer all services and transportation on a purely voluntary and confidential basis to the recipients.
For its initial 6 months, this pilot program will only operate in the central downtown area (broadly, from York St. to I-25 east to west and 38th St. / 40th Ave. to 6th Avenue north to south) and along the South Broadway corridor to Mississippi Ave., with service also being provided to the temporary shelters at the Denver Coliseum and National Western Complex. As of now, the STAR service will be available in these areas between 10am-6pm, which is when the highest volume of public health emergency calls are received by Denver 911, though different hours of service may be experimented with during the pilot.
During the pilot, the STAR alternative response vans will be staffed by mental health clinicians from Mental Health Center of Denver and paramedics from Denver Health who will be dispatched in response to calls received by Denver’s 911 communications center, or calls received from Denver’s non-emergency line at 720-913-2000. Though the pilot, funded by the taxpayers of Denver through the Caring for Denver Foundation, will be limited in its area and hours of service while data is collected and supporting partnerships grow, the hope is for the service to eventually be scaled up to serve the entire City & County of Denver 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that it would be staffed and supported by community-based health provider organizations, clinics, and agencies.
While the STAR alternative response pilot was never intended to be rolled out in the midst of recent protests against police violence and had been in planning for years before them, its launch is nonetheless timely, as communities seek concrete methods for ending our city’s and our nation’s reliance on policing and the broken criminal justice system to address public health problems. The community groups advocating for a program like STAR in Denver have intended for it to handle calls that would otherwise be responded to by police, diverting such calls away from law enforcement-oriented responders who have been inappropriately tasked to be defacto social workers when they are first to the scene of a mental health crisis, and instead ensuring that the more appropriate mental and physical health experts will be the first on the scene.
“In our view, the STAR program is really a form of preventative medicine for police violence,” said Roshan Bliss, co-chair of the Denver Justice Project. “It is a tangible demonstration that communities can and should create models to handle public safety without relying on police who have been inappropriately been given responsibility for responding to many social problems, and we hope that more such alternatives will continue to be created here in Denver.”
Vinnie Cervantes with Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR) noted that the launch of this pilot program is welcome progress for the effort overall. “DASHR has been organizing a community coalition to make a program like CAHOOTS possible in Denver since 2018. We insist that a program like this must be community-owned and led and DASHR will work to ensure that happens while envisioning the launch of a full program when the pilot is done. We are excited to see this launch and determined to keep working.”
Lisa Raville from Harm Reduction Action Center said, “STAR is a harm reduction intervention that provides for a healthier and safer Denver. STAR is about getting the right people to the right scene for de-escalation efforts, reducing incarceration, and providing proper care. We believe this program to be a true game changer in our community and are incredibly supportive of this initiative.”
The STAR alternative response initiative program’s pilot launch is the result of years of advocacy and planning from a constellation of community organizations and service providers that began in 2017 at a community forum called “It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This,” the Denver Justice Project hosted (DJP), aimed at highlighting serious alternatives to police, prisons, and the broken judicial system. A video address from staff of the White Bird Clinic served as the event’s keynote to highlight the CAHOOTS model as an alternative to police-based emergency responses, and the group committed to working toward importing the model to Denver. DJP helped coordinate a trip to Eugene for a delegation of representatives from community groups, social service providers, and Denver’s emergency response system to learn directly from White Bird Clinic about the CAHOOTS service in May of 2019. A working group of stakeholders was formed shortly after the trip that has planned and coordinated the pilot launch, and the same group will oversee the pilot and continue to plan for its eventual city-wide expansion. The STAR initiative has been supported by several members of Denver City Council members and leaders from the Denver Safety Department, including Chief Paul Pazen who has committed the Denver Police Department’s full cooperation with the new service since the beginning of his tenure.
“As a parent and community member I am relieved and excited for the STAR program to launch,” said Janet van der Laak, who has a son living with severe mental illness. “This program will provide a safe alternative for mental health response. This will eliminate police contact and keep people like my son from being caught in the vicious cycle of the judicial system.”
Denver Justice Project
Mental Health Center of Denver
Denver Alliance for Street Health Response
Denver Homeless Out Loud
and Harm Reduction Action Center