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Deploying Mental Health Workers for Low-level 911 Calls May Lower Crime

man and woman members of Denver STAR response team
The STAR program is becoming a "household name" for crisis response in Denver, said one of the program's partners. | WellPower

A Denver program that relies on health care responders to handle emergency calls for less serious, nonviolent incidents reduced crime during its pilot period in 2020, according to a new study.

The findings, which were published in the June 10 issue of Science Advances, indicate that the Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program reduced reports of crimes including trespassing, public disorder, and resisting arrest by 34% during this period and did not increase reports of more serious or violent crimes.

"Advocates for the police should find it appealing because most police officers report that they do not want to handle such behavioral-health service calls," said Thomas Dee, a Barnett Family Professor of Education at Stanford University and coauthor of the study. "And not doing so may both improve police morale and retention. Those who advocate for 'defunding the police' should also find this reform appealing. It reduces the operational footprint of police in the community and creates a longer-term case for shrinking police budgets as their responsibilities narrow."

The police themselves, who have been involved in the program throughout its development, express support for STAR as an asset to the Denver community.

"The Denver Police Department sees the STAR program as a successful way to send the right resources to the right situations in order to improve outcomes for people experiencing crises," said Douglas Schepman, director of public affairs & communications at the Denver Police Department.

The Rise of STAR

Police officers often serve as first responders to mental health and substance abuse crises. However, the American public has grown increasingly concerned over fatal police encounters, especially since the death of George Floyd in May 2020. This public outcry, combined with the high costs associated with the current policing approach, have motivated new emergency response models.

The Denver STAR program is one such model.

"[There] was awareness of the calls police were going on and [people were] asking why that was the only option," said Christopher Richardson, a project manager at WellPower, a local nonprofit involved in the program. "This led to conversations and thoughts on what alternatives could be to provide support in the crisis system that made more sense."

In 2016, the Denver Police Department, the Mental Health Center of Denver (now WellPower), and Denver Human Services' Office of Behavioral Health Strategies had launched a co-responder program. In this model, professional behavioral health clinicians are paired with officers to respond to calls involving behavioral health or substance use issues.

"Paired officers and co-responders are the most appropriate response when there are safety concerns, such as assaultive behavior, weapons, or threats," said Schepman. "The STAR program was a natural evolution building upon the co-responder program."

In June 2019, a team from the City of Denver and nonprofit organizations traveled to Eugene, Oregon, to learn about the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program. This crisis intervention program, which is integrated with the City of Eugene's Police Department, became the STAR program's inspiration.

"This trip reinforced the need to develop a program that included government and nonprofit partnerships to ensure not only an appropriate response to individuals in need but to build a network of support services," said Schepman.

Pilot Program Success

Dee and Jaymes Pyne, a research associate at Stanford University and coauthor of the study, investigated the outcomes of the program during its six-month pilot period beginning in June 2020. The researchers compared the eight precincts that participated in the program with precincts that did not using monthly criminal offense data reported in the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). During this period in which the STAR team responded to 748 incidents, Dee and Pyne concluded that the program prevented nearly 1,400 criminal offenses.

"Perhaps the most surprising finding was the strength of the program's crime-reduction effects on days and times in which the program was inactive," said Dee. "Those substantial effects on off-hours crime implies that directing individuals in mental health and substance abuse crises to treatment early and often may reduce recidivism and escalation of offenses later on."

But while the study provides encouraging evidence for the program's success, the researchers emphasize that the findings are limited to a brief period in a subset of police precincts within a single city.

"There are important open questions about whether this program can be as effective when operated citywide and whether its impact can be replicated in other cities and in programs with other design features," said Dee. "We intend to take on this research agenda and provide evidence that can answer these important questions and that can guide meaningful reforms."

A Household Name

The STAR program has continued to grow and evolve, with the pilot transitioning into a full-scale program that is still expanding. Currently, the program includes six STAR teams that respond to calls from across the city seven days per week between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. It plans to expand to 10 teams capable of providing coverage at all hours of the day.

Additionally, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) is developing a network of community-based organizations that can provide ongoing resources to individuals who receive assistance from an initial STAR call.

"The goal is for a 'warm handoff' to community organizations that can provide similar services or connections to the things people need, including food, housing, or treatment," said Emily Williams, the communications director for DDPHE. "DDPHE is also working at a systems level to ensure there are community supports for mental and behavioral health so that STAR eventually becomes a secondary response."

"We are slowly starting to become a household name in many areas where historical crisis response has only been fire, police or EMS," added WellPower's Richardson. "We are seeing that communities appreciate alternatives that better suit what they are needing across a spectrum, versus the historic one-size-fits-all response. And law enforcement continues to be one of our greater supporters and partners. They can tap into STAR to support them and better allocate their time to more law enforcement needs in the city."

[Credit for associated image: WellPower]