At the height of the pandemic, when tensions and fear were already high, protests broke out across the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd. Cries for police reform and change to an unjust system were heard around the world, and in the city of Denver, they seem to be listening.
In June of 2020, Denver, CO started the Support Team Assisted Response program, or STAR, as a way to place nonviolent people in need in the hands of health care workers, rather than police officers. The STAR van is staffed with a paramedic and two mental health professionals, and is stocked with basic medical supplies, as well as food, blankets, condoms, or any other essential item someone may need.
The STAR crew respond to low-level incidents that can potentially be escalated by the presence of armed law enforcement. According to a recent report, the program is proving very successful in both its ability to limit the number of unnecessary arrests, while also allowing officers to focus on higher-level crimes.
In the past six months, the STAR van has responded to 748 incidents, none of which required police, or led to arrests or jail time. However, according to the report, about 3 percent of all calls for DPD service, or over 2,500 incidents, were worthy of and could have benefited from the alternative approach. With only one van and three members, the STAR team is only able to operate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Chief of Police Paul Pazen says that his goal is for every neighborhood in Denver to be able to benefit from and rely on a STAR van, anytime and any day of the week.
Carleigh Sailon, one of the civilian mental health experts that staff the STAR van, said, “We run an unbelievable amount of calls for such a limited pilot program and have had some really good outcomes on those calls.” She recalls a time when an unhoused woman was having symptoms of a mental health episode at a local 7-Eleven. The woman became upset when she started having issues with her pre-paid Social Security card and, since she was technically trespassing at that point, the clerk phoned the police.
After evaluating the situation, the responding officers called in the STAR staff. “We got there and told police they could leave. We didn’t need them there,” explained Sailon. With both teams working within a system that better understands how to recognize a mental health concern and therefore how best to respond, the STAR members were able to assist the woman with her card and bring her to a local day shelter for a hot meal.
“So we were sort of able to solve those problems in the moment for her and got the police back in service, dealing with a law enforcement call,” continued Sailon. This cooperation between police officers and the STAR team is essential to best serve the community, as well as allow officers to focus on where they’re needed. In fact, the recent report showed that 35% of the calls that STAR received were from responding officers.
Chief Pazen hopes that the STAR program can work in conjunction with the existing police department, rather than replace it entirely. “I want the police department to focus on police issues,” he explained. “We have more than enough work with regards to violent crime, property crime and traffic safety, and if something like STAR or any other support system can lighten the load on mental health calls for service, substance abuse calls for service, and low-level issues, that frees up law enforcement to address crime issues.”