Inspired by Denver STAR program, Congress to consider bill that would expand alternate response to 911 calls

In two years, the mental health clinicians and EMTs of Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response team have answered thousands of low-level 911 calls without police help, consulted with other cities wanting to start similar programs and — now — inspired national legislation.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet on Wednesday introduced a bill that would help other cities pay for services that pair or replace police with mental health professionals for some emergency calls. If passed, the Supporting Mental Assistance Responder Teams Community Policing Act will make federal grant dollars available to cities and states for a variety of alternate response models.

Local governments will be able to use the money for programs that:

  • Send EMTs and mental health clinicians to 911 calls, like the STAR program
  • Pair a mental health clinician with a police officer
  • Train crisis workers to respond to 911 calls
  • Train police to respond appropriately to mental health crises
  • Employ case managers and outreach teams that follow up with people after an emergency call to provide long-term services

The goal is to reduce costs and provide better service for people across the country, especially those who come into contact with the police because of unmet mental health needs. Law enforcement officers will also have more time to respond to reports of crime.

“It’s a win for the community and it’s a win for the police,” Bennet said in an interview.

As chief of staff to then-Mayor John Hickenlooper nearly 20 years ago, Bennet heard from Denver residents and police about a need for an alternative to traditional police response for some problems.

The Democrat thought of the bill after visiting the STAR program as well as talking with the Grand Junction Police Department’s co-responder program, which pairs counselors with officers.

The bill does not allocate new money to such programs, but makes the tens of millions of dollars already set aside through several grant programs for community policing available for alternate response models.

Programs that pair a mental health clinician with police or that replace police response with health professionals have become increasingly popular across the country as communities call for reform. The U.S. Department of Justice awarded grants to 19 cities in 2022 for co-responder programs, including Boulder.

Denver’s STAR program launched in 2020 with a single van and has since responded to more than 2,700 calls. City leaders have expanded the program to six vans and more than a dozen workers so that the program can cover the entire city. Other Colorado cities, including Aurora, soon launched similar programs or are considering doing so.

A study by two Stanford University researchers published in June found that the STAR program led to significant and sustained reductions in reports of offenses that the van responds to, like trespassing and public intoxication. The program is both successful and cheaper than police response, the researchers found.

There are no strict guidelines on what kind of programs can be funded through the bill, Bennet said.

“I hope to see examples of places like Denver, Summit County and Grand Junction that really develop models that work in their unique circumstances,” he said.

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