Denver STAR program expands in hopes of responding to 10,000 emergency calls a year

Since June 2020, mental health clinicians and paramedics working for the Denver Support Team Assisted Response Program have traveled hundreds of miles in their white vans responding to 911 calls instead of police officers.

They responded to reports of people suffering psychotic breakdowns and people screaming for no apparent reason. They helped a homeless woman who couldn’t find a place to change, so she undressed in an alley. They helped suicidal people, schizophrenics, drug addicts. They distributed water and socks. They helped people find shelter, food and resources.

The program, known as STAR, started 20 months ago with a single van and a two-person crew. More than 2,700 calls later, STAR is about to expand to six vans and more than a dozen workers. The growth that program leaders hope will allow teams to respond to more than 10,000 calls per year.

Last week, the Denver City Council voted unanimously to approve a $1.4 million contract with the Denver Mental Health Center to continue and expand the program. The contract means the scheme which aims to send unarmed health experts instead of police to certain emergency calls will soon have a wider reach and more hours of operation.

“These programs can and do work, you just have to deal with the logistics and the enrollment,” said Chris Richardson, associate director of criminal justice services at the Mental Health Center in Denver.

The city quickly increased the program’s budget, from the $208,141 in grants spent to launch a six-month pilot program in June 2020 to the $3.9 million allocated in the 2022 budget.

“STAR is an example of a program that has worked for those he has come in contact with,” Councilman Robin Kniech said Monday before the council approved the contract. “It minimizes unnecessary arrests and unnecessary costs – whether it’s jail costs or emergency room costs. It did so for less than 1% of incoming calls in the city for which it might be eligible. It is important that we scale it.

The program gained national attention when it was launched amid nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, though the creation of the program took years to prepare. National news outlets like NBC News, USA Today and NPR reported on STAR. Politicians, community leaders and police have praised the program.

The widespread attention was a bit unexpected, but made sense in the wake of Floyd’s killing as communities demanded change in policing, said Vinnie Cervantes, director of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response. Floyd’s killing has sparked much conversation and criticism of the country’s criminal justice system, which police and protesters say is too often used to deal with non-criminal issues such as mental health and addiction.

“STAR was kind of an answer to a lot of things people were asking for,” Cervantes said.

About a year after STAR launched, Aurora replicated the model — one of many cities in Colorado and beyond to find inspiration in Denver’s new program. Program staff have been bombarded with requests for more information from officials and organizations across the country hoping to launch similar programs in their hometowns.

“I feel like the last year and a half has been a blur of all the cities and counties that have reached out to us,” Richardson said.

More expansion may be needed

Since its launch, STAR paramedics and clinicians have responded to more than 2,700 calls, according to Carleigh Sailon, STAR operations manager. STAR providers did not call Denver police to respond to any of their calls, she said.

But those 2,700 calls are only a fraction of what STAR could have covered in that time if the program were larger. Sailon said there were about 11,000 calls to Denver emergency services that could have been handled by STAR at that time.

Program officials hope to expand the program to six pickup trucks by April as part of the expansion allowed by the new contract. On Thursday, three vans served the entire city from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Although the program was limited to downtown Denver during its pilot project, it has since expanded to the entire city.

Staff will continue to collect data once all six vans are in circulation and then assess whether more are needed.

“I think next year the conversation will be whether we need more,” Richardson said.

Demographics of 759 people served between June 2020 and January 2022 show that approximately two-thirds of those served were experiencing homelessness. Almost three quarters of these people had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, anxiety or major depression.

Two-thirds of those contacted were men and most people were between 31 and 60 years old. About 42% of those served were white, 22% were black, 7% were Latino, and 11% identified as multiracial.

Most STAR service calls go through Denver 911, where dispatchers are trained to dispatch the STAR van for the appropriate needs. But about a third of the calls come from Denver police officers who answered a call and determined it would be best handled by STAR.

“Agents are constantly asking when there will be more STAR vans,” Sailon said.

Although the program began under the Denver Department of Public Safety, in January it was moved under the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.

“It’s the future of law enforcement, taking a public health view of public safety,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said of the program in a 2020 interview. “We want to meet people where they are and meet those needs and meet those needs outside of the criminal justice system.”

Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

An unmarked STAR van is parked at West 5th Avenue and Banncock Street in Denver on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

Other cities are considering

Cervantes, like Richardson and Sailon, also received a flood of inquiries about the program from other organizations and city governments. Cervantes said he spoke with government officials or community organizations in Lakewood, Jefferson County, Wheat Ridge, Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, among other communities, who are interested in learning more about STAR.

“The first thing we say (to government leaders) is, ‘Who do you talk to in your community?’ “, he said.

Aurora launched its program, the Aurora Mobile Response Team, Sept. 8 after hearing protesters’ demands and seeing the success of STAR in Denver, program manager Courtney Tassin said.

The response team includes a clinician from Aurora Mental Health Center and a paramedic from Falck Ambulance and operates from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday in the city’s District 1, which covers the northwest corner of the city.

In the first four months, the team responded to 190 calls addressing a wide variety of needs and people.

“We have people experiencing homelessness and business leaders that we serve,” Tassin said. “Mental health does not discriminate.”

Aurora police have called the team 50 times for incidents they believe would be better served by AMRT, Tassin said.

“The main feedback we get is, ‘When will we get more from you?'” she said.

Aurora city management has already approved the program to continue through 2022, Tassin said. The team discusses with city leaders a possible expansion, which Tassin believes is necessary.

“People are also in crisis in southern Aurora,” she said.

Center Community Leadership

The launch and expansion of STAR has not been without tension.

Some of the community organizations that brought the idea to the city and helped develop it had to fight for continued inclusion in the program’s future, said Cervantes, director of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response. In April, several community organizations protested what they saw as attempts by the city to co-opt their work.

“We continue to struggle with the city to get a voice in the program we helped create,” said Cervantes, who was one of the organizers involved in the early stages of brainstorming.

The city organized a 15-member community advisory committee in October to help guide and oversee the program. The board of directors, of which Cervantes is a member, meets once a month.

“We recognize and accept the importance and necessity of community involvement,” said STAR program manager Nachshon Zohari. “We support this wholeheartedly.”

Denver is also seeking neighborhood organizations to contract with the city to provide long-term support services to those contacted by STAR workers. Not only will the programs help stabilize people for the long term, but they will also be another way to keep community voices in the STAR program, he said.

“You have the problem in the moment that expresses itself, but then you have underlying issues that often continue to be there,” Zohari said.

Ryan H. Bowman