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Health care workers replaced Denver cops in handling hundreds of mental health and substance abuse cases – and officials say it saved lives

None of the cases the workers went to required police and no individuals were arrested

CBS NEWS – Li Cohen

A program that replaces police officers with health care workers on mental health and substance abuse calls in Denver, Colorado, is showing signs of success, according to a six-month progress report. Despite responding to hundreds of calls, the workers made no arrests, the report said — and the city’s police chief told CBS News on Friday that he believes the program “saves lives.” 

Under the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, health care workers are dispatched in lieu of police when responding to incidents involving issues with mental health, poverty, homelessness or substance abuse. STAR providers only respond to incidents in which there is no evidence of criminal activity, disturbance, weapons, threats, violence, injuries or “serious” medical needs. 

During the first six months of the program, from June 1 to November 30, health professionals responded to 748 calls, including trespassing, welfare checks, narcotic incidents, and mental health episodes, according to the report. None of those cases required help from Denver police and no individuals were arrested.

Police chief Paul Pazen told CBS News that all of those calls were a success. 

“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,” he said. “…You have a safer community and you have better outcomes for people in crisis.” 

Under the STAR program, health providers use vans such as these equipped with food, water and other resources to travel to incidents. DENVER POLICE DEPARTMENT

Pazen recalled one case in which an individual was complaining of their feet hurting. Under typical circumstances, Pazen said, an ambulance, police and maybe a firetruck would have been dispatched to the scene. Instead, workers equipped with food, water, and hygiene products handled the situation.

“They needed shoes, so [the STAR] team just bought the guy a new pair of shoes,” Pazen said. “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.” 

The health care workers are intentionally given cases that are less likely to result in police use of force. But as the deaths of Daniel PrudePatrick Warren Sr. and countless others have shown, police responses to such cases can end in tragedy. 

People who have untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter, and those who have an untreated severe mental illness are involved in up to half of all fatal police shootings, according to research by the Treatment Advocacy Center

In 2020, Mapping Police Violence found that 94 people were killed by police who had responded to reports of someone behaving erratically or having a mental 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 study, said in a press release. “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 said they found that calls for mental health assistance were 17% higher than the three-year average. Of the cases to which STAR responded, nearly 60% of the people who had diagnosed mental health issues were affected by schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder.

Similar programs to STAR have been rolled out elsewhere in the U.S. STAR was modeled after the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, which also uses unarmed intervention members to respond to mental health calls without police backup. 

Denver’s latest program is just one aspect of the police department’s “layered” approaching to tackling issues in the community, Pazen told CBS News. 

The city also has three other alternative response programs, including a co-responder program that pairs police with licensed professional behavioral health clinicians to respond to incidents in which people are experiencing behavioral health or substance abuse issues, Pazen said. The department has seven case managers who follow-up with people who were assisted by co-responders or the STAR team, or who were referred by police officers. 

While the analysis of the first six months of program found “no concerning issues” and said the program is accomplishing its goal, it also noted that the only way to measure wide-scale effectiveness is to apply it to a larger area over a longer period of time. 

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

The program is ongoing, and Pazen said the Denver mayor has committed $1.4 million from the city’s general fund to expand the service. The program is also expected to receive an additional $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 said, will allow the program to be used seven days a 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 states. “…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 said his administration would fund initiatives to pair police departments with mental health professionals, substance use disorder experts, social workers and disability advocates.

A national rollout such of a comprehensive program like Denver’s, Pazen said, could play a major role in that plan.

“I think it saves lives,” he said. “It prevents tragedies.”