Jun 8, 2022 - News

Denver's police alternative program faces doubt amid expansion

Illustration of a police hat with a smiley face on the badge.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

What started as a popular pilot program to reimagine policing in downtown Denver is expanding — but community members are raising concerns over its direction and control.

Why it matters: Amid nationwide scrutiny over police brutality, STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) — inspired by a decades-old program in Eugene, Oregon — has proven to be a national model for major U.S. cities looking for alternatives to handle 911 calls involving unarmed people in distress.

  • Yes, but: Mounting questions surrounding STAR could jeopardize its promising image.

Driving the news: The Denver City Council this week voted to boost STAR's budget by nearly $527,000 on the heels of the program's two-year anniversary.

  • The funding will allow for five new vans to help serve more people and reach the goal of providing citywide coverage 24/7.

What they're saying: Although STAR's expansion is welcomed generally, "a lot of decisions are being made without the community," says Vinnie Cervantes, who sits on STAR's 15-member Community Advisory Committee.

  • "There are consistent concerns about its association with police and public safety" that "challenge the community's trust … whether this is a program that they can call as a true alternative" to policing — and "our concerns are regularly disregarded," he says.

Of note: Cervantes and other advocates say the city's controversial civilian-led Street Enforcement Team (SET), another police alternative response tool, is setting STAR back by enforcing "harmful policies," like homeless encampment sweeps.

  • SET — which has "direct access to law enforcement" if needed and is housed in the Department of Public Safety — is "very contradictory to the values that undergird STAR and harms the ability for the public to trust STAR as a whole," he argues.

The other side: Denver's health department, which oversees the STAR program, tells Axios Denver the city intends to work to "build awareness of the important role of alternative response programs," spokesperson Emily Williams says.

  • "STAR and SET … represent a critical piece of our behavioral health response to provide intervention and de-escalation for community members in need," she adds.

By the numbers: The STAR program responded to 4,600 calls between June 2020 and the end of May 2022, per city data provided to Axios Denver.

  • Not one incident resulted in the team calling for police backup, Williams notes.

What's next: STAR's new vans are estimated to arrive in late summer or early fall due to supply chain issues.

  • In the interim, the city is leasing vans to scale up the program.

The bottom line: STAR has certainly seen success, but "there's still a lot of work that needs to be done" to ensure it's "culturally responsive and contains an element of community-driven control," Cervantes says.

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