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Lorez Meinhold, executive director of Caring for Denver. Courtesy of Caring for Denver

The STAR Van Offers an Alternative to Police

Caring for Denver's STAR van sends a paramedic and clinician to non-criminal 911 calls. The goal is to avoid unnecessary officer involvement—and to find gaps in Denver’s support systems.

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Caring for Denver Foundation’s newest initiative couldn’t have debuted at a more complicated—and perhaps auspicious—time.

The six-month pilot program, dubbed Support Team Assisted Response (STAR), utilizes a single service van staffed by a mental health clinician and a paramedic. If a 911 operator receives a call about a non-criminal situation—such as reports of mental health emergencies, drug overdoses, or requests for a welfare check—they dispatch the boxy white ride (unless it’s on another call) to the scene instead of police officers.

The STAR van is the newest enterprise from Caring for Denver, a nonprofit founded in 2018 when voters passed the Caring for Denver ballot initiative and funded its mission of addressing mental health and substance misuse issues. More than $200,000 of that money will fund the van’s full-time clinician and two paramedics who will rotate shifts. The community groups collaborating on STAR include Mental Health Center of Denver, Denver Justice Project, Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, and Denver Homeless Out Loud—all of which will evaluate the pilot in hopes of improving and expanding the model throughout the city.

During the trial phase, STAR will serve the central downtown area, the South Broadway corridor to Mississippi Avenue, and the temporary shelters at the Denver Coliseum and National Western Complex (it’s on call Monday through Friday, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.). STAR is confidential and gives agency to those it treats, who must consent to being taken to a new location, such as a hospital, rehabilitation facility, or shelter. The STAR team is not law enforcement and does not make arrests.

[Read More: Caring for Denver Issues First Grants Worth About $2 Million]

Since STAR’s June 1 launch, the van has responded to several calls a day, including requests for welfare checks and reports of intoxicated individuals. Its debut came amid increased calls to defund police departments following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man killed by an officer during an arrest in Minneapolis. And while the program’s stated mission—to provide community-driven alternatives to traditional law enforcement—is considered a key (and timely) step in diverting resources from the police, Caring for Denver partners have been planning a program like STAR for years.

Vinnie Cervantes, a community organizer and the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response’s point person with STAR, says police are often not the best solution to community health problems. “When officers approach a situation, they’re looking for whether a crime has been committed,” he says. “Whereas, STAR’s team approaches somebody with questions about whether they can be treated on the spot or whether they needed to be treated elsewhere. It’s the difference between looking for treatment versus looking for punishment.”

Chris Richardson, a Mental Health Center of Denver staffer who is one of two clinicians overseeing STAR, agrees. “Clinicians have the education background to be able to understand what someone may be going through,” says Richardson, who also points out that encountering a cop can be jarring for a person in need of help. “Sometimes police are trying to get from one call to the next call to the next call. The STAR van actually has the ability to be a little more intentional and a little more purposeful with that individual.”

The goal isn’t just to quell the current crisis, but to prevent a future one. The Mile High City offers a variety of programs designed to assist the population STAR will be helping (such as the Gathering Place, a daytime drop-in center providing meals, a job readiness program, and other services for women, children, and transgender individuals facing poverty), and Richardson says the team will guide folks to those resources. “Having those long-term supports in place means that, when the next crisis comes, people can connect with those organizations instead of viewing 911 as their only option,” he says.

Modeled after the Crisis Assistance Helping Out in The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, STAR is beginning as a pilot program because, Cervantes says, it must answer a variety of questions over the next six months to make sure the model is suited for Denver: How many calls were diverted from the police? How many people in crisis are receiving long-term care and support after their encounter with STAR? Is the community safer?

Complicating those questions will be COVID-19’s many impacts—known and unknown. “There’s going to be fewer unhoused folks on the street because they’re being forced into that shelter to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Cervantes says. “But during this time, there’s an escalation of mental health crises, especially because many people feel isolated. Some of that may skew the data.”

That’s why Cervantes will be examining STAR through another lens, one that depends slightly less on data. “The CAHOOTS program response vans have been successful,” says Cervantes. “But its real success in my mind is the network of services and different resources that CAHOOTS actually takes people to in order to get some level of support or safety.” Cervantes believes STAR, both current and future iterations, will reveal gaps in Denver’s own resources—and guide the city toward creating a more robust safety net for its most vulnerable residents.

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