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The police don't have to take every call

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Another US city is reporting early success with a program that replaces police with health care workers for some emergency calls.


Previously, Denver 911 operators only directed calls to the police or fire department. But, now, the Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) pilot program has been able to direct emergency calls to a two-person team: a medic and a clinician, staffed in a van from 10am to 6pm on weekdays.


STAR — which launched last June and is reporting promising results after its first six months — aims to provide a ‘person-centric mobile crisis response’ to people experiencing problems related to mental health, depression, poverty, homelessness or substance abuse.


Denver is among several US cities trying out alternative emergency responses for those experiencing mental health crises. Since 2015, police have fatally shot nearly 1,400 people with mental illnesses nationwide, according to a Washington Post database.


Over the first six months of the pilot, Denver received more than 2,500 emergency calls and the STAR team was able to respond to 748 of them. No calls required police help, and no one was arrested.


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


Data collected reveals that STAR calls were focused in certain areas of the city; most were for trespassing and welfare checks; around 68% of people were homeless, and 61% had mental health problems — largely schizoaffective disorder, bipolar, and major depressive disorder — with 33% of them having co-occurring conditions.


“The intent of STAR is to send the right response, not a one-size fit all response,” says Carleigh Sailon, a social worker with the Mental Health Centre of Denver who works out of the STAR van. “People call 911 for an array of reasons . . . If the STAR van can handle someone in crisis and that frees up police to handle a robbery or a domestic violence call, then that’s an incredible success.”


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’, helping street cops respond 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 but put money toward exploring co-responder models. And Chicago is expected to begin piloting a co-responder program this year.


However, some cities rely on emergency response models that don’t involve police at all. STAR is modelled on the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon, which launched back in 1989. It responds to a range of mental health-related crises and relies on harm reduction. With a budget of about US$2.1 million annually, CAHOOTS answered 17% of the Eugene police department’s overall call volume in 2017.


Cervantes says his organisation, 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 March. And New York City announced plans last November to begin a similar pilot program in two neighbourhoods.


For the coming year, Denver will continue with STAR and buy four more vans and six new two-person teams, as well as a full-time supervisor. The program is also moving from the city’s safety department to its public health department.


ABOVE Chris Richardson and Carleigh Sailon from the Mental Health Centre of Denver (left and right) and Spencer Lee, a Denver Health paramedic, in front of STAR’s van.

PHOTO KEVIN J. BEATTY/DENVERITE


People call 911 for an array of reasons. If the STAR van can handle someone in crisis and that frees up police to handle a robbery or a domestic violence call, then that’s an incredible success.

Carleigh Sailon

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