Denver's STAR set to expand amid tension over its future
It's hard to find anything in Denver with the universal approval rating of the Support Team Assisted Response program, known as STAR.
Driving the news: This year, the group will expand from five to eight vans, growing from 10 staff members to 16, Tristan Sanders, Denver's director of community and behavioral health, tells us.
- The additional staff will help solve one issue STAR has: Not all calls flagged for them by the city's 911 dispatch center get a response.
- "That's what we're hoping to address with this expansion, that if a call comes in, it's flagged to be STAR eligible, it gets a STAR van, period," Sanders says.
- STAR has responded to more than 10,000 calls since its inception in 2020, Sanders said, and now costs just under $5 million to run.
Context: Hailed by groups often at odds — criminal justice advocates and law enforcement — STAR involves paramedics and clinicians responding to calls like welfare checks, bypassing police presence.
- One study said it lowered crime and helped reduce costs for the city since launching in 2020.
Yes, but: As STAR approaches its three-year anniversary, worries from its community advisory board members over its direction plague its development.
Zoom in: Sanders tells us STAR's advisory committee, which is supposed to meet once a month, is the best way for the public to provide comments.
- However, committee meetings only resumed in March, Denver Public Health Department's Ryann Money tells us, after they were paused last September.
What they're saying: "It was a huge betrayal for the advisory committee to cancel the meetings for that long," advisory board member Vinnie Cervantes says.
- Cervantes said the meetings were canceled by the city because he and other board members were raising concerns about the program's direction.
- They include feeling left out of a hiring process for a position Cervantes said board members felt would add "barriers" between the board and public health department, and the STAR program's affiliation with the controversial Street Enforcement Team.
The other side: Money, in a statement, did not specify why the meetings were paused, only that the health department is working "to strengthen" STAR by working with the advisory board.
The intrigue: Cervantes said the board has raised concerns about police showing up to STAR calls when they're not supposed to, something the city denies.
- Money tells us about 30% of the time when police are dispatched to calls, they arrive on the scene and determine STAR is the appropriate response, not police.
- "Calls that require a police response are not responded to by STAR and are not dispatched to STAR," she said in a statement. "To date, STAR has never had to call for police backup due to a safety issue."
Between the lines: Cervantes tells us he's optimistic the two sides can work together to ensure the board does what it's intended to do, providing a public perspective to a program he said has been successful.
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