When people last summer discussed the concept of “defunding the police,” it was partially about diverting funds from the police to professionals who can deal with certain situations better than the police can. That’s happened in Denver of late, as healthcare workers have been brought in to help with mental health and substance abuse issues—to great success.
According to CBS News, “A program that replaces police officers with healthcare workers on mental health and substance abuse calls in Denver, Colorado, is showing signs of success, according to a six-month progress report.”
What’s more, no arrests have been made despite the workers responding to hundreds of calls—with the city’s police chief told CBS News on Friday that he believes the program “saves lives.”
As the article notes, Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program dispatches healthcare workers, not police, when responding to incidents involving issues with mental health, poverty, homelessness or substance abuse.
The article goes on to say that STAR providers only respond to incidents in which there is no evidence of criminal activity, “serious” medical needs, or anything involving weapons, injuries, or other indications of violence. Between June and November 2020, the team reported to 748 calls ranging from trespassing to welfare checks to narcotic incidents to mental health episodes.
“That’s 748 times fewer that the police department was called,” Denver police chief Paul Pazen observed, “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 added, on what STAR means to Denver, “You have a safer community and you have better outcomes for people in crisis.”
He illustrated one cost-saving example: A man who complained of foot pain during a call got what he needed through a STAR call, rather than what a call to 911 might have produced.
“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.”
Pazen’s statement about saving lives does have some data behind it. The CBS News article notes, based on Treatment Advocacy Center, that 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.
Thanks to what Denver’s doing, there’s a blueprint for what other cities might try.