How and when Denver will expand STAR, which replaces cops with social workers on (some) nonviolent calls

Not soon enough, says one city councilmember.
4 min. read
Denver’s STAR van is parked outside of the Denver Rescue MIssion at Park Avenue and Lawrence Street. Feb. 12, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The safety net that catches people with mental and behavioral health issues before they land in the criminal justice system will expand by late summer or early fall, but not to the entire city.

The Support Team Assisted Response is a group of social workers and paramedics who replace police officers in some nonviolent situations and connect people with services. Historically, about 25 percent of DPD arrests have been people experiencing homelessness, according to the department. For example, if someone needs a place to sleep, they might curl up in a business's doorway. Sure, it's trespassing, but no one's hurting anyone, so the idea is to connect that person to shelter or other services instead of a jail cell and a record that can trap people in a cyclical criminal justice system.

STAR will go from operating on weekdays for eight hours a day to working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, Denver Chief of Police Paul Pazen told Denver City Council members Wednesday during a committee meeting on public safety.

"The idea is that we want to expand outside of that downtown sector so that we can be serving other parts of the city," said Andrew Dameron, director of Denver's 911 center, to reach parts of the city "that we've identified have a need for STAR services."

STAR teams can technically respond to calls anywhere in the city, but this map outlines where officials think the greatest need will be, based on 911 calls.
City and County of Denver

STAR will expand beyond its current 6-square-mile limit of central Denver, to include 32 square miles and the northeast and southeast quadrants of the city. (Those lines are blurry, officials said, and just represent a starting point.) An infusion of $1.4 million from Denver's public health department will fuel the growth: three more vans instead of one and five teams of workers instead of one. The program could get more cash from the city sales tax for mental health as well.

One city council member asked officials to act with urgency and expand STAR sooner.

As a six-month pilot, STAR responded to almost 750 calls with zero arrests. Dameron estimates -- conservatively -- that the expansion would divert 10,000 calls a year, once the program expands, to social workers. STAR workers, who are comprised of behavioral health experts from Mental Health Center of Denver and paramedics from Denver Health, can also be dispatched by officers on the street or intervene on their own if they see someone who needs help, perhaps with a schizophrenic episode or substance abuse.

Councilmember Robin Kniech said the current expansion, which relies on an oft-delayed process of sending contracts out to bid and choosing a contractor, will take too long. The intervention works, she said, so there's no reason not to extend the current contract with the current health care workers.

"I don't think it's acceptable for the entire expansion of this program to be delayed until after the season where we see the highest rate of these calls and need," said Kniech, speaking about the summer months.

Officials unveiled the expansion after working with several local groups, according to a presentation given to city council, including Servicios de La Raza, Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, Denver Homeless Out Loud and Harm Reduction Action Center.

Still, Council President Stacie Gilmore questioned whether the expansion appropriately encompasses neighborhoods of color in a city where Black people comprise less than 10 percent of the population but about 30 percent of the people in the court system.

"It looks like you have just drawn a big, black line around the northeast without any intentionality beyond call data, which I'll tell you right now, folks in Montbello where I've lived for 25 years are very hesitant to call the police," Gilmore said.

Dameron, with Denver 911, said the map represents a broad area of focus and that the STAR van can respond anywhere in the city. But Gilmore argued for a more targeted focus.

"I've always been under the impression that we were making decisions based on ... the racial data and the negative outcomes of when folks of color are interacting with the police when they're in crisis versus having trained mental health professionals (respond)," Gilmore said.

This article was updated to remove Black Lives Matter 5280 from the list of groups that participated in the expansion after the group said it was not involved, which is what public safety officials conveyed to the public. 

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