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What Happened When Denver Replaced Police Officers with Mental Health Workers?

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Mental health often doesn’t get the appropriate attention it deserves in the U.S. If someone is having a manic episode or psychotic breakdown, calling the police may not be the right approach. We’ve seen dozens of individuals killed by the police when responding to mental health emergencies. Officers do not receive the same training as licensed providers. Their first reaction is usually to restrain the individual, which can lead to violence, arrest, and even death.

During a six-month trial, the city of Denver, CO decided to let mental health providers respond to these kinds of calls and incidents instead of the police. Officials say the results speak for themselves.

The Success of STAR

The program is known as Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR. It’s based on a mental health response team in the town of Eugene, Oregon called CAHOOTs (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), a community policing initiative that started in 1989.

The CAHOOTs model sends out two-person teams, made up of a nurse, paramedic, or EMT and a crisis counselor. The program deals with a variety of issues in the community, including drug abuse, homelessness, and threats of suicide. These professionals do not carry guns. Instead, they use de-escalation techniques to resolve the situations without violence.

In Denver, the program has been deemed a smashing success.

Chris Richardson is a clinical social worker who’s part of the STAR team, which received $200,000 to deal with behavioral health calls. In five-degree weather, he responds to a man that’s hallucinating walking around downtown Denver barefoot. Instead of taking the man into custody, Richardson gives him a pair of shoes to keep him warm.

“All he needed in that moment was shoes. And we just built a relationship that hopefully, if he sees us again, that we can have that ongoing conversation about connecting under that long-term support,” Richardson says after the encounter.

He adds that the man was likely intoxicated. If a police officer responded to the call, he may have faced a public intoxication charge, which could’ve put him in jail.

“My whole career has been built on developing relationships and how do I navigate the community and how do I provide stuff to people through my – you know, the collaborations of community support. And I know that really well. I don’t know that officers have that full Rolodex that I might have,” Richardson points out.

Police officers usually only receive 40 hours of training for behavioral health calls.

Over the last six months, STAR has responded to 750 behavioral distress calls throughout the city and none of them led to an arrest.

Breaking the Cycle of Incarceration

Families and individuals suffering from a mental health crisis don’t have to worry as much about dealing with the police or facing arrest.

Leslie Herod, who represents Denver in the Colorado Legislature, has been a fierce advocate of the STAR program. She says, “It’ll help us to begin to break the cycle of incarceration because this is a cycle.”

She would like to see these individuals receive the help and counseling they need instead of facing jail time. “Because people don’t just go in for one time and then they’re forgotten about forever. No. It’s about a cycle of substance use, of mental health crisis, of inappropriate law enforcement response and an inappropriate criminal justice response,” Herod added.

The Denver Police Department seems to be in favor of the program as well. Chief Paul Pazen helped Herod get the program off the ground.

“If you hear about it, it’s just, like, common sense. Oh, yeah. Why aren’t we doing that?” Pazen says.

He believes the program will help armed officers focus more on violent crime and property crime. “Under-resourcing law enforcement kind of gets us into the same place of under-resourcing mental health services over the years, right?”

STAR is expected to get another $1.5 million from the city’s general fund. That money could be doubled thanks to a new mental health sales tax that voters passed in 2019. This would multiply STAR’s budget by 15, helping it expand across the region.

Policing and incarceration usually make up around 30% of Denver’s budget. Pazen believes STAR can respond to around 3% of all emergency calls; it’s not clear if the police department will get to keep the money it saves by not having to respond to as many calls. Advocates would like to see that money go back into the community in the form of mental health and affordable housing.

Denver City Council member Candi CdeBaca argues, “Redeploying police with the dollars saved from addressing mental health in a better way is not the answer.”

She points out that around 70% of those who may benefit from the STAR program don’t have access to permanent housing, so there’s more work to be done.

Similar mental health response teams are being set up in New York as more areas throughout the country rethink their approach to policing. 

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