Denver Has a Program That Sends Mental Health Professionals on Certain 911 Calls Instead of Police

Illustration for article titled Denver Has a Program That Sends Mental Health Professionals on Certain 911 Calls Instead of Police
Photo: Jason Redmond (Getty Images)

A lot of people would mock the idea of sending social workers or mental health professionals to do a police officer’s job. For example, people who share memes like this:

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Or people who, without making any effort to do any kind of research on what’s actually being proposed, automatically imagine the worst possible scenario where 911 dispatch is sending social workers into violent situations and so they scoff at the idea in its entirety and post dismissive nonsense like this:

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But what if I was to tell you that not every 911 call needs to be answered by law enforcement? What if I told you that there already exists a program that has found efficacy in sending mental health professionals and paramedics on certain calls instead of the police? Because that program does exist in Denver, Colorado.

The Denver Post reports that on June 1, Denver launched its new Support Team Assistance Response program. The goal of the program is to “connect people who pose no danger with services and resources while freeing up police to respond to other calls,” the Post reports. We’re talking about homeless people who aren’t doing anything violent but may present a safety risk to themselves or others. Or maybe someone displaying erratic but not life-threatening behavior. (Imagine if this program was in place in Aurora, Colo., when a 911 call was made on Elijah McClain.)

Or this example reported by the Post:

A concerned passerby dialed 911 to report a sobbing woman sitting alone on a curb in downtown Denver.

Instead of a police officer, dispatchers sent Carleigh Sailon, a seasoned mental health professional with a penchant for wearing Phish T-shirts, to see what was going on.

The woman, who was unhoused, was overwhelmed and scared. She’d ended up in an unfamiliar part of town. It was blazing hot and she didn’t know where to go. Sailon gave the woman a snack and some water and asked how she could help. Could she drive her somewhere? The woman was pleasantly surprised.

“She was like, ‘Who are you guys? And what is this?’” Sailon said, recounting the call.

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So instead of being subjected to invasive and often insensitive questioning by police officers—not to mention the possibility of being arrested for simply existing or worse—a STAR van showed up to help the woman in any way she needed. In fact, the Post reports that the STAR van has responded to more than 350 calls, and not on even one of those calls have responders—who are not armed—had to call for police backup, according to Sailon.

“We’re really trying to create true alternatives to us using police and jails,” Vinnie Cervantes with Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, one of the organizations that helped start the program, told the Post. “It really kind of proves that we’ve been working for the right thing and that these ideas are getting the recognition they should.”

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Chris Richardson, who along with Sailon is a professional from the Mental Health Center of Denver who works out of the STAR van, said they have also responded to an indecent exposure call that turned out to be a woman changing clothes in an alley because she was homeless and had no other private place to go.

“It’s amazing how much stuff comes across 911 as the general, ‘I don’t know what to do, I guess I’ll call 911,’” Richardson said. “Someone sets up a tent? 911. I can’t find someone? 911.”

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Even Denver police Chief Paul Pazen has praised the program as being “the future of law enforcement, taking a public health view on public safety.”

“We want to meet people where they are and address those needs and address those needs outside of the criminal justice system,” Pazen said.

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More from the Post:

Pazen doesn’t think an expanded program would reduce the number of police officers needed by the city but it would allow them to focus on other priorities, such as violent crime and traffic fatalities. The STAR van handles a small fraction of the department’s annual 600,000 calls, but the department is tracking calls across the city to see how many could be handled by the STAR team if it were to expand.

The department has seen an increase in the number of mental health related calls over the last few years, he said, and data collected by the state shows that about a third of the people in Denver’s jails are unhoused.

“Instead of putting people in handcuffs we’re trying to meet their needs,” Pazen said.

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It’s interesting how people who would oppose programs like STAR can imagine unarmed social workers being sent into violent situations (a thing no one is suggesting), but ignore actual reports of 911 calls on mentally disabled people turning deadly. Sometimes we really just don’t need cops.

Zack Linly is a poet, performer, freelance writer, blogger and grown man lover of cartoons

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DISCUSSION

connect people who pose no danger with services and resources while freeing up police to respond to other calls,” the Post reports. We’re talking about homeless people who aren’t doing anything violent but may present a safety risk to themselves or others

Ummm....

The thing is that you never really know what you’re getting into when confronting someone or approaching a stranger in a non-standard context (probably a major reason people call 911 instead of intervening personally). Back when I worked for a town health department, my boss would always get a police escort when making confrontations about reported violations. One time, when he was going to go confirm and issue a citation on someone flattening his property by pushing the hillock into a town lake, his police escort requested a police escort because it turns out the guy was a member of one of the Five Families (why he was summering so far into Irish territory I have no idea).