Denver, CO

Replacing police with mental health pros gains momentum in Denver

David Heitz
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In Denver and across the country, programs that replace sworn police with mental health professionals for non-violent encounters with residents in crisis is gaining traction.

Denver recently expanded its STAR program. STAR stands for Support Team Assisted Response. The program began as a pilot in police district 6. Now, it’s citywide. So far STAR has taken 1,186 calls for service where no police were needed.

Carleigh Sailon oversees the STAR program. She joined the city from Mental Health Center Denver, where she served as a STAR clinician.

Sailon served as a guest on City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca’s weekly Facebook town hall Friday. CdeBaca is a big proponent of police reform and is pleased with STAR so far.

When STAR responds to a call for service, a mental health professional from Mental Health Center Denver and a paramedic from Denver Health arrive at the scene in a van. STAR runs from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Sailon said the city already is looking into buying 10 vans. The STAR program will consist of six teams in four vehicles for now. She said the city has had trouble buying vans due to COVID-19 related supply chain issues. Vans from Mental Health Center Denver are being used instead.

Which residents encounter STAR instead of police?

So, what constitutes a typical STAR call?

Sailon said recently someone called STAR to report a man on 16th Street Mall experiencing homelessness in a broken-down wheelchair. The man was having a tough time. A veteran, he said he had lost touch with his providers due to not having a phone.

Sailon said she was able to call a contact at the VA Hospital in Aurora. They got the man in right away, providing him with mental health treatment and referrals to housing.

“STAR does welfare checks, behavioral health crises, people calling in about unhoused neighbors,” Sailon said. She said STAR approaches people experiencing homelessness from a non-judgmental standpoint.

Recently STAR responded to a call at a Whole Foods Market where a woman was yelling at cars that were driving by. The STAR team diffused the situation. They have special training for crisis situations and are experts at building rapport.

Responding to open drug use in encampments

Sailon said STAR has begun to address the open use of drugs in the encampments. The team uses a harm reduction approach, meaning they encourage drug users to at least curtail their habit.

Often, she connects people on the street to the Harm Reduction Action Center, where addicts can get free clean needles, Narcan, fentanyl testing kits and more.

“We really try to be yes people and make it happen,” Sailon said of connecting people to services. “We have people to call for warm handoffs.”

Sailon is enthusiastic about her new position. “I want to make sure that STAR is getting to everywhere we’re needed,” she said during the Facebook town hall. “I want to know if clients are satisfied, and we will be doing lots of evaluating.”

Want to get in touch with STAR? Call 911 or the police non-emergency number at 720-913-2000. Call the STAR team directly at 720-913-STAR.

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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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