May 3, 2023 - News

Denver's STAR set to expand amid tension over its future

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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

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.

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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