Denver, CO

Mental health team may replace Denver police on more calls

David Heitz

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City and County of Denver

A pilot program for dealing with residents having mental health and/or substance abuse emergencies may go citywide.

The City Council will consider Monday accepting a $1.4 million grant from Caring For Denver Foundation to expand the STAR program. The acronym stands for Support Team Assisted Response.

The STAR team replaces a police response when community members dial 9-1-1 for help with people in distress. The idea is to minimize interaction with residents living with mental illness who aren’t dangerous criminals.

The encounters the STAR team records generally are with people experiencing homelessness. The team includes a mental health professional and an EMT instead of police. The team can link people in distress to services and de-escalate tense situations.

Often, residents using STAR are mired in poverty and substance abuse. The STAR team can try to find them housing and addiction treatment.

City plans to step up STAR program

“The grant from Caring for Denver Foundation will assist in the expansion of this program from its current limited pilot scope to transitioning into a citywide program,” according to a city staff report. “This project seeks to increase the areas of coverage of the STAR Program by increasing the number of paramedic/behavioral health clinician teams and increasing the effectiveness of the engagements with people in need by providing linkages to short-term assistance and long-term follow-up care.”

City staff reports that when combined with city funding, the program may be able to go citywide. The expanded program could tally 10,000 encounters per year.

“Due to the chronic nature associated with mental health, poverty, homelessness, and/or substance abuse it is assumed that many individual residents will be served multiple times,” according to the city staff report.

Adding vehicles, personnel

The expanded program will require more STAR emergency response teams and vehicles. “There is a recognition that services addressing the underlying issues affecting people in crisis need to be increased, optimally using a network of neighborhood service organizations,” according to the staff report.

The pilot program has been an enormous success, city staff reports. “People with mental health and substance misuse issues are being successfully diverted away from the justice system,” according to the report. “Those involved in or released from the criminal justice system are actively engaged with resources available to meet them where they are in recovery and live healthy lives in the community.”

The STAR program has resulted in fewer trips to jail for people with mental health and substance issues. Instead, they get mental health treatment and other supports. The team intends to “develop and manage a network of community support services to provide ongoing, long-term supports to address mental health and substance misuse,” according to the city report.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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