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Health care workers replaced Denver cops in handling hundreds of mental health, substance abuse cases, it saved lives

(The AEGIS Alliance) – DENVER, COLORADO – A program that replaces law enforcement officials with health care employees on psychological well-being and substance abuse calls in Denver, Colorado, is exhibiting indicators of success, a six-month progress report reveals. Despite responding to hundreds of calls, the employees made no arrests, the report stated — and on Friday the city’s police chief said he believes this program “saves lives.”

Under the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, health care employees are dispatched instead of cops when responding to incidents of mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, or substance abuse. STAR providers solely respond to incidents wherein there isn’t any evidence of criminal activity, weapons, threats, disturbance, violence, injuries, or “serious” medical needs.

During the initial six months of the program, from June 1 to November 30, health professionals responded to 748 calls, together with trespassing, welfare checks, narcotic incidents, and psychological health episodes, the report says. None of these instances required assistance from Denver police and nobody was arrested.

Police chief Paul Pazen said that every one of these calls had been successful.

“That’s 748 times fewer that the police department was called, meaning we can free up law enforcement to do what law enforcement is supposed to do, and really what law enforcement is good at, and that is addressing crime issues, violent crime, property crime, and traffic safety,” Pazen stated. “…You have a safer community and you have better outcomes for people in crisis.” 

Pazen recalled one case during which a person was complaining of their feet hurting. Under typical circumstances, Pazen mentioned, an ambulance, police, and possibly a firetruck would have been dispatched to the scene. Instead, workers outfitted with food, water, and hygiene products dealt with the situation.

“They needed shoes, so the STAR team just bought the guy a new pair of shoes,” Pazen continued. “The typical answer to that would have been to take that person to the hospital. Imagine what that would have cost in response. Imagine what that would have cost in medical bills, for the physician to say the guy needs a new pair of shoes,” he added.

The healthcare staff is deliberately given cases that are much less likely to end in police use of force. But because of the deaths numerous people have shown, police responses to such incidents can end in tragedy and death.

People who have untreated psychological health issues are 16 times more likely to be killed throughout an encounter with police, and people who have untreated severe psychological health issues are involved in as much as half of all deadly police shootings, research by the Treatment Advocacy Center reveals.

In 2020, Mapping Police Violence discovered that 94 individuals had been killed by police who had responded to calls of somebody behaving erratically or having a psychological health crisis.

“By dismantling the mental illness treatment system, we have turned mental health crisis from a medical issue into a police matter,” John Snook, executive director and a co-author of the Treatment Advocacy Center research stated in an announcement. “This is patently unfair, illogical, and is proving harmful both to the individual in desperate need of care and the officer who is forced to respond.”

Going into 2020, Denver police mentioned they discovered that calls for psychological well-being help had been at a 17% increased rate than the three-year average. Of the incidents, STAR responded to, almost 60% of the individuals who had diagnosed psychological health issues had been affected by bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and major depressive disorder.

Similar programs to STAR have been rolled out elsewhere within the United States. STAR was modeled after the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, which also makes use of unarmed intervention teams to respond to psychological well-being calls without the need for police backup.

Denver’s latest program is only one aspect of the police department’s “layered” approach to tackling issues locally, Pazen said.

The city also has three different alternative response programs, including a co-responder program that pairs police with licensed professional behavioral health clinicians to respond to cases during which persons are experiencing behavioral health or substance abuse issues. The department has seven case managers who follow-up with individuals who had been assisted by co-responders or the STAR team, or who had been referred by law enforcement officials.

While the evaluation of the first six months of the program discovered “no concerning issues” and mentioned the program is accomplishing its objective, it also noted that the one solution to measure wide-scale effectiveness is to use it in a bigger area over an extended time period.

STAR teams were only in a position to be used in certain areas from Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. throughout the pilot period.

The program is ongoing, and Pazen stated the Denver mayor has dedicated $1.4 million from the city’s general fund to expand the service. The program is also anticipated to receive an extra $1.4 million in matching funds from Caring for Denver, a foundation that funded the pilot program, and $200,000 carried over from the pilot funding from Caring for Denver.

This, Pazen mentioned, will enable the program to be used seven days every week in more areas.

“We must be mindful that the data is from a small window of time, in one area of the city, during the busiest months of the year for call volume, and co-occurring with a global pandemic,” the report reads.

“The STAR program has been successful based on the metrics and program goals we evaluated. However, the STAR program will continue to be successful only if the City can continue to engage and build with the community.” 

During his campaign, President Biden stated his administration would fund initiatives to pair police departments with psychological health professionals, substance use disorder specialists, social workers, and disability advocates.

A nationwide rollout such as a comprehensive program like Denver’s, Pazen said, may play a significant role in that plan.

“I think it saves lives,” Pazen concluded. “It prevents tragedies.”

Kyle James Lee – The AEGIS Alliance – This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Kyle James Lee

Majority Owner of The AEGIS Alliance. I studied in college for Media Arts, Game Development. Talents include Writer/Article Writer, Graphic Design, Photoshop, Web Design and Development, Video Production, Social Media, and eCommerce.

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