After starting out with just one van, Denver’s STAR program will expand to six this year

The program has been praised as an alternative to police response.
5 min. read
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 isn't quite two years old, but the Support Team Assisted Response fleet is set to expand this year as it continues providing an alternative to sending cops to specific emergency calls.

The program, better known as STAR, currently has three vehicles sending a clinician and a paramedic instead of police for 911 responses. It launched as a pilot in June 2020 with just one van, only serving some parts of the city. Last fall, it expanded its coverage area to the entire city, and this year, it aims to have six total vans.

On Monday, the Denver City Council voted unanimously to approve a $1.4 million contract with the Mental Health Center of Denver to continue operating the STAR program and help it expand. The contract runs through December.

"STAR is an example of a program that has worked -- for those that it has had contacts with -- in minimizing unnecessary arrests or unnecessary costs, whether that be a jail cost or an emergency room cost," Councilmember Robin Kniech said during Monday's meeting.

The program has a total budget of $3.9 million for 2022, with most of the money coming from the city, and other money coming from the Caring For Denver Foundation, which provides grants with money generated by local sales tax.

Right now, STAR staffing includes eight clinicians and six paramedics from Denver Health, according to Chris Richardson, the STAR program director with the Mental Health Center of Denver.

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

STAR operations manager Carleigh Sailon said the program has responded to more than 2,700 calls since launching. Sailon works for Denver 911. The city's Department of Public Health and Environment officially took over the STAR program in January. It was initially under the management of the city's public safety department.

Richardson said the initial pilot phase gave staff an opportunity to figure out what worked and what needed to improve, so even things like what the van provided to people changed.

For instance, water and snacks were sometimes provided to people during a call, then people STAR helped in the past made suggestions.

"What started out as just water and food turned into tampons and condoms and sunscreen and hygiene packs and clothes and shoes and syringe disposal," Richardson said, adding staff are considering carrying naloxone and fentanyl-testing strips.

"It's really influenced by the individual that says, 'I'm having a bad moment and this would have made it much better' and we always say that's a great idea," he added.

One thing STAR needs to work on is making sure people in Denver know its now available citywide.

Since expanding, it can go anywhere in the city. Richardson said flyers, speaking at community events and putting up billboards are options under consideration.

He doesn't want STAR to turn into something people fear calling, the way some people feel about 911 for police.

"That's going to be goal number one, is how do we message this out to the city," Richardson said.

It's also important people have information about the kind of calls STAR is equipped to handle. Sailon said 911 call takers determine the best response for calls, and while people can request STAR when they call 911, it's not always going to be the most appropriate response.

Sailon said the most common calls STAR responds to are for trespassing or an unwanted person, as well as low-level behavioral crisis.

"We are trying to be as thoughtful as possible in our messaging so people don't have unrealistic expectations when STAR is requested," said Nachshon Zohari, STAR's program manager, who works for the city.

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

Zohari said the city has issued a request for proposals to find an agency to provide community engagement services to create a network of providers that can be accessed by people contacted by STAR. Zohari said this will help provide more long-term support for people who are contacted by the program.

Zohari added that a 15-member advisory committee launched last year is helping ensure the program follows its core values.

The program has been praised as an alternative to policing. Mayor Michael Hancock name-dropped it when he announced his new public safety plan as an example of something that's working well.

"Programs like STAR are force-multipliers," Hancock said on Feb. 3. "The more we can respond to emergencies with an unarmed social worker, the more we can free up police officers to go after the drug dealers, gun sellers. We are going to continue to scale up these efforts."

Richardson calls STAR a "fourth leg" for emergency response, along with cops, fire and EMS. Denver police, for example, have called STAR for incidents where cops don't feel they are the right first responders. Richardson said referrals from police make up about 30% of the program's calls.

"We can kind of take those social needs issues off their plates and be able to take that on," Richardson said.

Zohari said a third-party agency has been contracted to evaluate STAR and produce a report that should be available by the end of the year.

Correction: A previous article incorrectly stated Sailon worked for the city's public health department. She works for Denver 911.

Recent Stories