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Denver 911 Calls Routed to Mental Health Professionals

Soon a squad car arrives, and you are accosted by police.

How does this scenario play out?

Based on similar situations all across the country, far too often it ends in violence and tragedy.

Blame is easily pinned on police presence escalating tensions, as well as poor or nonexistent training for handling such encounters, but this may overlook the real problem – and a simple solution.

In situations involving psychological or physical needs that pose no threat to public safety, the cops should not be called at all.

The Support Team Assistance Response (“STAR”) is a pilot program in Denver that directs certain 911 calls to a paramedic and a mental health professional. The two-person team has been sent to about 350 calls in the first three months of the program, which began in June 2020. While this represents a small fraction of the 911 calls that Denver typically receives, advocates point out that the STAR program allows cops to avoid many unnecessary uses of force or incarceration and also frees them up to focus on actual crime.

“It’s the future of law enforcement, taking a public health view on public safety,” said Paul Pazen, Denver’s police chief. “Instead of putting people in handcuffs we’re trying to meet their needs.”

The police department has started reviewing calls to get an idea of how much of their workload could be better handled by an expanded STAR program, though Pazen does not believe it would replace any of the cops needed on the streets.

STAR itself is an expansion of another program that has been including mental health professionals on appropriate police calls since 2016. The Mental Health Center of Denver charges around $700,000 annually for providing this service, which in 2019 included a staff of 17 professionals who were involved in over 2,200 calls.

Because the calls coming in to 911 cover a wide array of situations, having options like STAR and the co-responder programs in addition to standard police response should allow operators to more effectively meet the public’s needs.

“Once upon a time, someone called and police were tagged in to see what was going on,” said Pazen. “And I think we’re at a point where we’re realizing that police don’t have to be the first people all the time.” 


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