STAR alternative to police response silences community voices

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Community activists who helped create Denver’s STAR alternative police response program feel betrayed.

They learned Monday the STAR Community Advisory Committee will no longer meet through at least the end of this year. The group previously has had skirmishes with city administrators involved in the STAR program.

A NewsBreak reporter also received a Zoom email that all the body’s meetings had been cancelled. The committee launched its own set of replacement meetings.

STAR administrators formerly all white

Vinnie Cervantes, director of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response and a member of the committee, said until recently all the managers of the program were white. He interpreted a letter sent by a city employee to be racist because it expressed she did not feel comfortable working with the committee, which includes Black and brown people, Cervantes said. He said the employee later apologized for giving that impression.

Cervantes made his remarks Tuesday during a Facebook livestream. Other members of the Community Advisory Committee also attended.

STAR sprung from grassroots activism in response to police brutality complaints. Cervantes said the entire idea behind STAR is to remove police from situations involving a behavioral health crisis. Data shows police response tends to escalate such situations, which can result in injury to police and/or the person in crisis.

STAR on scene with police

Cervantes said STAR has begun to arrive on scene with police. Sometimes police arrive first and radio for the STAR program, city officials have explained.

The emergency dispatch center decides when to send a STAR team, comprised of a Denver Health paramedic and WellPower mental health professional. WellPower formerly was Mental Health Center Denver.

Crime Prevention and Control Commission moved

So far, it looks as though the STAR advisory committee could be going the way of the Crime Prevention and Control Commission. That commission also was under the auspices of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, or DDPHE, like the STAR advisory committee, but it was moved to public safety in July.

According to the Crime Prevention and Control Commission website, it did not meet in August or September. A meeting is scheduled for October.

"STAR was initially housed within Department of Safety but was moved to DDPHE because the program is focused on providing mental and behavioral health treatment," Williams said. "There is no law enforcement component of the STAR program."

DDPHE: Pause in meetings temporary

According to a representative of DDPHE, the pause in meetings is only temporary. "Per recent conversations between the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment and the STAR Community Advisory Committee, it is clear we are committed to the same goal, and we have a shared vision to further strengthen and expand the STAR program so that it can be the best possible resource to the community it serves," Amber Williams said in a statement. "Over the past few months DDPHE has received feedback from advisory committee members, community members, partner organizations, and others about the committee and how community is engaged in the program.

"As a result of these conversations, DDPHE will not be convening (committee) meetings for the next couple of months while we work to create an equitable structure with clear and consistent processes by which the roles and responsibilities of the advisory committee and the department are plainly defined, the channels of communication between the department and committee are clear and understood, and everyone is respectful to each other and accountable to the process. Another priority is to ensure a clear and accessible path forward to incorporate community voice (ideas, innovations, efficiencies, etc.) into proposals that can be brought forward to the department for consideration."

Like the STAR advisory committee, the Crime Prevention and Control Commission stemmed from disillusionment with public safety. The commission was established in 2005 as a response to unsanitary, overcrowded jails.

Williams said a new structure for the STAR advisory committee will be created during the next couple of months. "Early in 2023, if not sooner, DDPHE will announce next steps in the development of a new (committee) structure for STAR; one that is founded in equity, giving opportunity for every voice on the Advisory Committee and from the community to be fairly heard and considered."

Commission, like STAR, has behavioral health emphasis

But in 2018, a behavioral health element was added. “City Council expanded the role of the Commission to include a behavioral health element – specifically identifying the ‘extent to which addressing behavioral health needs may affect those who become involved in the justice system before, during and after systems’ involvement,’” according to its website. “Additionally, the Commission is charged with fostering ‘innovation and alternatives in the criminal justice system and to provide initial funding opportunities for projects that advance these ideals.’”

STAR also “was created in 2018 to bring groups and individuals together who were interested in creating a new emergency response method as an alternative to policing and jail,” according to its website.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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