Progressive crisis response team reveals promising results

“5-52 Denver AM” by MKoneeye is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A six-month long trial period for a new initiative implemented in Denver, Colorado, called Strategic Team Assisted Response (STAR) just released its first evaluation, revealing the promising and positive effects that this program has already had on the community.

The STAR program replaces police officers with a mobile team of healthcare workers that respond to nonviolent calls related to mental health, depression, poverty, homelessness or substance abuse. In these first six months, the team responded to 748 calls, and none required police assistance or resulted in arrests.

When responding to these incidents, the workers are equipped with food, water, hygiene products and knowledge of how to appropriately deal with mental health-related issues without using force. This more empathetic approach to policing connects people to services like shelter, food aid, counseling and medication rather than putting them into the prison system or costly unnecessary hospital visits.

The team was only active in a small area of Denver from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday through Friday during their trial period. After seeing the success of the program, the City and County of Denver allocated $1.4 million to support the STAR program in 2021. An additional $1.4 million may also be provided to the program from the Caring for Denver foundation.

This budget will allow the program to expand by purchasing four vans, hiring six two-person teams of healthcare workers and purchasing the necessary supplies to stock these units. The expansion of the program will allow them to serve a larger area for seven days a week, creating the ability to help a larger portion of the city’s population.

The success of the STAR program and other similar initiatives like the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, are gaining national attention and have the potential to jump-start the possibility of a national rollout of a similar program.

Our nation’s criminal justice methods have been criticized recently due to the exposure of police brutality, especially towards people of color, which are sparking a widespread call for reformation of the criminal justice system. Programs like STAR are part of these reformations that have the potential to prevent police brutality which often occurs because the police do not know how to properly handle situations with those afflicted with mental illnesses. 

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter. It was also discovered that individuals with untreated severe mental illness are involved in at least one in four and as many as half of all fatal police shootings. From these findings, they concluded that reducing encounters between law enforcement and individuals with untreated severe mental illness could be one of the most immediate and practical strategies to reduce fatal police shootings in the United States.

Due to these prevalent issues, programs like STAR are gaining national traction. President Biden has said that his administration would fund such initiatives that pair police departments with mental health professionals, social workers, substance use disorder experts and disability advocates.

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