Denver’s STAR program, sending mental health pros on certain calls instead of police officers, is about to get bigger

The program — still resulting in zero arrests and no calls to Denver police for backup when deployed — has the support to expand.
6 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 program sending mental health professionals instead of cops to certain calls in Denver will expand starting next month, adding at least one additional van with clinicians to take up calls around the city. With new funding, the intention is to cover the entire city, growing far beyond its original 6-square-mile limit in central Denver.

The Support Team Assisted Response program, better known as STAR, will be operated jointly by the Department of Public Safety, where it was originally managed as a pilot program, and the city's Department of Public Health and Environment, which now has oversight on STAR's operations and budget.

Hiring to expand STAR is underway. Jeff Holliday, a manager with the behavioral health division of the public health department, said during a presentation on the program to City Council members on Monday a new STAR contract is being worked out. The Mental Health Center of Denver was the only applicant for a new contract to run the program, so they were awarded the contract from DDPHE. Mental Health Center of Denver will provide clinical staff, along with the Denver Paramedic Division.

In the meantime, the original contract from the safety department was extended to make sure STAR keeps running through January, at which point DDPHE will take over the new contract being worked out at the moment.

Simply put, city officials believe expanding the program will help more people around the city. It would allow the program to provide an EMS-style dispatch to get STAR vans around Denver.

STAR Operations Manager Carleigh M. Sailon told Denverite on Monday the city's full expansion goal is to have four vans with six teams providing coverage seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

For now, two vans and three teams (there's a night shift and day shift team) will start with these expanded hours next month.

"I think the entire city is going to benefit because we are not tying these vans to a specific location," Sailon said. "They are going to go where they're needed."

The city is also establishing a 15-person STAR Community Advisory Committee to make sure the city gets feedback about how it can improve from the same people who helped establish it last year.

City officials believe the added money will also allow more culturally appropriate services for certain areas of the city, including some of the city's most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods. Getting this kind of service was a concern among the people who advocated for the program's creation.

The highest volume of potential STAR calls came predominately from the city's downtown, and areas in neighborhoods like East Colfax and Montbello, and along the Federal Boulevard corridor, according to the city's own analysis.

Mental Health Center of Denver case worker Chris Richardson stands outside of Denver's STAR van, which is parked by the Denver Rescue MIssion at Park Avenue and Lawrence Street. Feb. 12, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The program has been lauded for its ability to keep people from ending up arrested or in jail. It launched in Denver last year amid nationwide protests against police violence and racism prompted by George Floyd's murder. By all accounts, the program has been successful in limiting interactions between cops and people in crisis.

"STAR is awesome," said Councilmember Chris Hinds, summing up how most council members said they felt about the program during Monday's presentation.

Not everything's rosy though. The folks who started the program have been critical about its direction since many said they felt blindsided by STAR's proposed expansion, which was made public earlier this year. Vinnie Cervantes, who runs Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, said on Monday said the advisory committee, which he will serve on, addresses some of their concerns.

"So the fact that we finally put it together is a good step but it's one that's a bit late," Cervantes said, adding, "I still don't know how much faith I have in the city listening to us."

Cervantes said he's also worried about the city only getting one bid for the contract to run STAR.

He and other want to make sure the city does provide culturally sensitive responses, including ensuring diversity among STAR staff who respond to calls and for the places where people get referred to by the staff.

According to data provided by DDPHE, the program has responded to 1,610 incidents since launching, a majority of which were for trespassing and welfare check calls.

That includes zero arrests and no calls to Denver police for backup. Sailon said during Monday's meeting cops have never been called due to safety concerns for STAR staff. She said there were two instances where Denver police were called only to provide information to someone STAR was treating.

The Support Team Assisted Response van. June 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

At least 476 people the program contacted were people experiencing homelessness who were living in encampments. Out of this group, at least 111 people were connected to services with agencies like the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Gathering Place, while another 98 people were connected with a Mental Health Center of Denver case manager for a follow-up.

Some 33 percent of calls led to people getting transported to overnight shelters or other agencies helping people experiencing homelessness by STAR. That figure also includes taking people to parks or public areas, walk-in crisis centers and detox. Some folks got a ride home.

Council members want to make sure the program stays funded and keeps expanding after this year. Holliday said he didn't know the exact budget request for the program for the 2022 fiscal year, though he estimated the program will cost between $3.4 million to $3.8 million a year to operate.

For now, the program is paid for by $1.4 million from the city's 2021 budget, an additional $1 million from the city's contingency fund approved this summer, and $1.4 million from Caring For Denver, a foundation that gets money from sales taxes to pay for mental health and substance use programs in the city.

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