Denver Government

Denver Expanding the STAR Program, Removing Cops From More Calls

Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Workers with the city's STAR truck often respond to calls concerning people experiencing homelessness.
As residents call for alternatives to policing, the City of Denver is discussing plans to significantly grow its non-law enforcement crisis response team. "We want to expand outside of the downtown sector so we expand to serve other parts of the city," Andrew Dameron, Denver 911 director, said during a March 24 Denver City Council committee presentation on the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) initiative.

STAR started operations as a pilot program last June, with one van carrying a paramedic and a mental health clinician responding to crisis situations that don't merit a law enforcement response. For example, the STAR truck might answer a call about a homeless individual experiencing a mental health crisis in Civic Center Park, helping to de-escalate the situation and suggest service alternatives.

The proposed expansion would grow the program from one to four vans and extend STAR's hours of operations from eight to sixteen hours and from five to seven days a week. It would also stretch STAR's scope from the downtown area and Broadway corridor to more parts of Denver, especially the northeast and southwest sections of the city.

When this proposal is implemented depends on whether Mayor Michael Hancock and the council wait for a full request-for-proposal process to run its course, which would put the earliest start date at the end of summer, or simply extend and expand the current contract, which employs Mental Health Center of Denver and Denver Health staffers and was initially supported with funds generated by the Caring for Denver ballot initiative.

"I think if we collectively agree that an expansion is urgent, we can use the current provider if they are willing," suggested Councilwoman Robin Kniech, adding that the request-for-proposal process could play out at the same time. "I would like to see a concrete proposal for an immediate expansion."

Local officials have widely praised the effectiveness of the STAR program. During the first six months of its pilot phase, the STAR van responded to 748 calls, 68 percent of which involved people experiencing homelessness and 52.6 percent of which involved people with mental health issues. None of the 748 calls led to arrests or required Denver Police Department assistance.

"It's critical that we send the right response. That's how we get the better outcomes," Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said during the committee hearing.

Pazen noted that the timing of the STAR pilot was "very fortuitous," since it launched right as Denver residents were protesting police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protesters' demands included limiting police deployments to crisis situations that don't involve a weapon or violence.

"On one hand, it removes the element of force from an immediate interaction for so many communities," says Vinnie Cervantes of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR). "The presence of a uniform itself and a weapon can trigger an escalation."

A city evaluation of 911 calls shows that a fully expanded STAR program would be eligible for over 10,000 calls annually, or 2.8 percent of requests for service.

But while members of Denver City Council lauded the STAR pilot, they questioned whether the data being used to plan the expansion was looking at the whole city.

In a PowerPoint presentation, Dameron noted that the expanded STAR program would be able to focus more on large swaths of northeast Denver and southwest Denver.

However, Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who represents parts of northeast Denver, such as the Montbello neighborhood, criticized the proposed focus areas, pointing out that they didn't include certain communities of color that may trust police less and potentially benefit more from a non-law enforcement response.

"The vans will respond anywhere in the city. This was to just illustrate that there was a need in the northeast area and the southwest area," Dameron responded.

"I'm concerned that they're not going to call in, or if they do call in, the response time is going to be too long and a police car is going to end up there," Gilmore continued. "We have a real problem with response times in our neighborhood, and I just don't want folks to have to wait there for STAR as well."

Councilwoman Kniech said that she doesn't "believe we should limit expansion solely based on who's calling today," adding that she hasn't been able to tell Denver residents outside of the downtown area and Broadway corridor to call STAR because the pilot has been limited to those areas.

During the presentation, city officials noted that STAR has been moved out from the Department of Public Safety and into the Department of Public Health and Environment.  Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca said she wants to see the city decrease the Denver Police Department budget to reflect the money saved with the DPD no longer responding to certain low-level calls. "I don't hear any conversations about how we're going to shift budget," CdeBaca said.

Cervantes was concerned that the committee didn't hear any voices besides those of city employees or contractors. "The fact that no community was present was a big issue here," he says, noting that DASHR has been facilitating the advisory committee working on the STAR expansion.

The expansion proposal calls for adding community support services to STAR, so that the team can connect people with resources that can help solve issues long-term. But this aspect of the program will just be limited to the downtown area and Broadway corridor in its first year. "We're putting the horse before the carriage," Cervantes says, noting that community members involved in planning the expansion hadn't agreed on this piece of the program taking effect so soon.

In addition to earmarking $1.4 million in the 2021 budget for an expansion of the STAR program, Denver has also introduced an Early Intervention Team to perform outreach and offer services to residents of new homeless encampments, in hopes of preventing them from growing larger. That team, which originally included law enforcement representatives from the Homeless Outreach Team, Human Services employees and public-health staff and started as a Public Safety effort, will now be housed under the Department of Public Health and Environment; it will no longer include a law enforcement component.

Over the last year, Denver has also been taking steps to decrease the interaction between law enforcement and people experiencing homelessness, especially those with mental health issues. This month, the city adopted a policy of having 311 operators dispatch non-law enforcement employees in response to non-criminal complaints about homeless encampments.