Jul 21, 2021 - News
Denver's pivot from police is gaining popularity nationwide
A close-up photo of a Denver police officer wearing a uniform hat, sunglasses and COVID-19 face mask.
Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

What started as a pilot program to reimagine policing primarily in downtown Denver is now expanding citywide and piquing interest across the country.

Driving the news: The City Council this week voted to boost the STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) program by $1 million, on top of $1.4 million already allocated from the 2021 city budget.

  • The new funding will allow the program to grow from one van to four; increase its 16-hour operating days from five to seven; expand from one team to six; and serve all of Denver, not just high-demand neighborhoods.

Flashback: The program first rolled out last June with funding from Caring for Denver, a foundation created by voters in 2019 that gives grants to programs that help people experiencing mental health and substance misuse issues.

Why it matters: Amid nationwide scrutiny over police brutality, STAR — designed after a decades-old program in Eugene, Oregon — is proving to be a national model for major U.S. cities looking for new ways to handle 911 calls involving unarmed people in distress.

How it works: 911 operators divert certain calls involving nonviolent crimes (like homelessness, trespassing and drug use) to social workers and mental health professionals.

  • The program frees up police officers to concentrate on solving violent crime while also easing certain situations that can escalate in the presence of an armed officer.

Yes, but: Some advocates have voiced concern about the city's management of the program, which they say should be staffed with "providers who share lived experiences and identities with Denver's diverse population," Denverite reports.

By the numbers: Not a single one of the more than 1,300 calls the STAR team received last year required backup from police or led to an arrest, STAR clinician Chris Richardson told Axios.

  • About 65% of the van's calls involve people experiencing homelessness.
  • STAR staff transferred 41% of the people they encountered to shelters, crisis centers or hospitals, according to a city report detailing the success of the program's first six months.

What they're saying: "We've talked to over 100-some cities trying to steal any knowledge or ideas we have on how to start programs like this that are community-led," Richardson says.

  • St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and Democratic U.S. Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri visited Denver earlier this month to learn more about the program.

What's next: The expansion will mean serving more residential and suburban areas that may have different needs compared to the demographics of downtown Denver. Richardson says they're looking into adding new roles accordingly.

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