Denver (CO) Successfully Sends Mental Health Professionals to Hundreds of Calls

A dispatcher responds to a call.
A dispatcher responds to a call. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brandon Martinez)

Grace Hauck

USA Today

(MCT)

Another U.S. city is reporting early success with a program that replaces traditional law enforcement responders with health care workers for some emergency calls.

Previously, Denver 911 operators only directed calls to police or fire department first responders. But the Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) pilot program created a third track for directing emergency calls to a two-person team: a medic and a clinician, staffed in a van from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

The STAR program, which launched in June, reported promising results in its six-month progress report. The program aims to provide a “person-centric mobile crisis response” to community members who are experiencing problems related to mental health, depression, poverty, homelessness, or substance abuse issues.

Denver is among several U.S. cities working to develop an alternative emergency responder model for people who are experiencing mental health crises, as police officers fatally shoot hundreds of people experiencing mental health crises every year, according to a Washington Post database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers. Since 2015, police have fatally shot nearly 1,400 people with mental illnesses, according to the database.

Over the first six months of the pilot, Denver received more than 2,500 emergency calls that fell into the STAR program’s purview, and the STAR team was able to respond to 748 calls. No calls required the assistance of police, and no one was arrested.

Denver police responded to nearly 95,000 incidents over the same period, suggesting that an expanded STAR program could reduce police calls by nearly 3%, according to the report.

“Overall, the first six months has kind of been a proof of concept of what we wanted,” said Vinnie Cervantes, a member of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, one of the organizations involved with the STAR program. “We’ve continued to try to work to make it something that is truly a community-city partnership.”

Data collected during the pilot program found that STAR calls were focused in certain areas of the city, and most were calls for trespassing and welfare checks. Approximately 68% of people contacted were experiencing homelessness, and there were mental health concerns in 61% of cases — largely schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder — with 33% of people having co-occurring conditions, according to the report.

The report comes on the heels of a year that saw thousands of protests nationwide in response to the killings of several Black men and women, as well as a series of high-profile police killings of people experiencing mental health crises, including Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, and Walter Wallace, Jr. in Philadelphia. Many protesters called on their local governments to redirect funding away from police departments.

In recent years, some police departments, such as in Los Angeles and San Antonio, have partnered with mental health professionals to work as “co-responders,” assisting street cops responding to incidents involving a mental health crisis. In the wake of Breonna Taylor’s killing in Louisville last year, the city increased its police budget and put money toward exploring co-responder models. And Chicago is expected to begin piloting a co-responder program this year.

But other cities rely on emergency response models that do not involve police. The Denver program is modeled after the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon. White Bird Clinic, a health care center in the city, launched the program as a community policing initiative in 1989.

Like the Denver program, CAHOOTS responds to a range of mental health-related crises and relies on techniques that are focused on harm reduction. With a budget of about $2.1 million annually, CAHOOTS answered 17% of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume in 2017, according to the program.

In 2019, Cervantes traveled with a group from Denver to Eugene to study the CAHOOTS model. Cervantes said his organization, the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, is working with about ten other cities in Colorado to draft co-responder models. Aurora — where 23-year-old Elijah McClain died after officers stopped him on the street in 2019 — is expected to launch its pilot in about a month, Cervantes said.

On the East Coast, New York City announced plans in November to launch a similar pilot program in two neighborhoods.

For the coming year, Denver has allocated $1.4 million in the city’s budget to continue the STAR program, according to the report. The funding would be enough to purchase four additional vans and fund six new two-person teams, as well as a full-time supervisor, the report said. The program is also transitioning from the city’s safety department to its public health department.

Cervantes said that, as the program goes forward, he hopes to see more complete data on who the program is serving. Current data does not list race or ethnicity for a third of people served by the program, Cervantes said.

“That’s something that surprises me,” Cervantes said. “How do we really understand the impact of the most marginalized communities in Denver if we don’t have the data there?”

Cervantes said the STAR program set out to connect residents in crisis with social services in the city, as well as identify the gaps in many of the services. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down many of the existing services, it made STAR’s task more difficult.

“With COVID, some of the services that would typically be available weren’t quite in full service. That’s something the STAR program had to adapt to,” he said.

The STAR program is organized through a coalition of city agencies and organizations, including the Denver Police Department, Denver Health Paramedic Division, Denver 911, the Caring for Denver Foundation, the Mental Health Center of Denver and community supporters.

Follow breaking news reporter Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck.


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