Last spring, in the wake of protests against police brutality and systemic racism spurred by the police murders of many Black Americans, a cry emerged to “defund the police” and reinvest the money saved into the community. As we have seen in the deaths of Daniel Prude, Michelle Cusseaux, and Janisha Fonville, sending in police as first responders is often a poor choice in situations that need de-escalators and clinicians.
While few cities have cut their police budgets as much as activists have sought, many have taken steps to move some funds. Now, several months later, initial data are showing positive results, with a growing number of cities finding that social service responses protect and serve people better than traditional policing responses in many cases.
Last June, Denver launched Support Team Assisted Response—STAR. The program, as described in a press release, dispatches a mental health clinician and a paramedic to provide “free medical care, first aid, or mental health support for a broad range of non-criminal emergencies such as drug overdoses, suicidal individuals, mental illness problems, intoxication, and more.” STAR is dispatched through Denver’s 911 communications center, and this mobile crisis intervention service is “intended to divert these types of calls away from police officers and toward mental health and medical professionals.”
Denverite, a member-supported news organization supported by Colorado Public Radio, adds that the program “keeps people out of an often-cyclical criminal justice system by connecting people with services like shelter, food aid, counseling, and medication. The program also deliberately cuts down on encounters between uniformed officers and civilians.”
Carleigh Sailon, a STAR clinician, shares her perspective on what this work looks like in practice with Julia Cardi of the Colorado Gazette, in comments reported by Colorado Politics. “My goal in the STAR van,” she says, “is to meet people where they’re at.”
Somebody may not be ready to make a change that day, and that’s OK. It’s not my focus to move that person through their change process more quickly. It’s to build that trusting foundation and that working relationship that allows them to feel comfortable coming back to me when they are ready to make a change.
If you can make people feel comfortable, you can not only tell people that you’re there to help, but you can show them in some small way. That oftentimes really helps build a rapport.
In its first six months, operating in a limited area and with limited hours, STAR responded to 748 calls out of the 2,500 that met the program’s parameters. None of those calls required police backup, nor was there any need for arrests. These early results were promising enough for the city of Denver to directly fund another year and a modest expansion, allocating $1.4 million for the coming year. According to USA Today, this “funding would be enough to purchase four additional vans and fund six new two-person teams, as well as a full-time supervisor.” Denver police chief Paul Pazen has expressed his support of the program and called for the program’s budget to be increased even more, by $3 million, so it can reach all the city’s neighborhoods.
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Ownership of the program is also being moved to the city’s public health department, rather than public safety.
For years, Denver nonprofits like Harm Reduction Action Center, Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR), and Denver Justice Project have recognized the need for alternatives to policing in their community. STAR represents a step forward, creating a working partnership with the city to test whether the role of police can be reduced.
The pilot was funded by a grant from the Denver Caring Foundation, which was formed in 2018 to divert a portion of city sales tax revenue toward mental health services. STAR drew on the ongoing experience of CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), which has provided a mental health-first response in Eugene, Oregon since 1989 and now handles 17 percent of the city’s 911 calls.
Change is hard, and sometimes comes slowly, but successes in small trial efforts are providing momentum to make larger differences. Vinnie Cervantes, a member of DASHR, describes the outcome of Denver’s first effort as “a proof of concept” of what they really want: “a community-city partnership.” Each additional data point offers more evidence of the positive impact that removing police and force from situations better met by care and compassion can have.
More cities are following these examples. Just last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to shift $25 million, or a third of its in-school policing budget, to initiatives that directly support Black students. School board member Nick Melvoin described the board’s motivations to CNN’s Josh Campbell and Scottie Andrew in comments reported by The Root: “We are taking an important step in the right direction to provide Black students with vital investments in their success—with millions of dollars going toward academic support, social-emotional resources, and a new approach to school climate and safety. This student and community driven action was long overdue.”
Meanwhile, US Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR), Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and six additional co-sponsors introduced legislation to provide federal funding to expand mental-health based alternative crisis response efforts. The bill—which is named for and inspired by Eugene’s CAHOOTS program—“grants states further enhanced federal Medicaid funding for three years to provide community-based mobile crisis services to individuals experiencing a mental health or SUD [substance use disorder] crisis. It also provides $25 million for planning grants to states and evaluations to help establish or build out mobile crisis programs and evaluate them.”
While cries to “defund” or “abolish” the police ring harshly for some, stoking fears that fewer police must mean less safety, the data show that shifting funds from police to harm reduction often results in safer communities. This is what the experiences of Denver, Eugene, and many other cities are telling us.
All that’s required here is the courage to look at the results, which illustrate how force is often neither the only nor best way to answer a call for help. Indeed, using social service workers to respond to calls, particular when mental health or substance abuse are at issue, often leads to far better public health and safety outcomes.—Martin Levine