The waves of protests in 2020 against systematic racism and police brutality led to calls for cities to change their policing systems. Beyond just discriminatory policing, a big part of the problem was that police officers were being called on to respond to non-criminal 911 calls, something they are simply not trained to do and which often leads to unnecessary violent responses.
In September 2020, we wrote about a fantastic policing alternative set up in Denver called STAR, which stands for Support Team Assistance Response. The STAR program began on June 1st, with a team of non-armed social workers serving non-dangerous citizens in need, which helped free up police to respond to other incidents.
During January 2021, a new progress report came out from the STAR team detailing their first six months of being active in the city. The report showed that STAR has responded to 748 incidents, with not a single one of them requiring police or leading to arrests or jail-time.
STAR is reported to handle close to six incidents a day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, in high-demand neighborhoods. Although the team does not yet have enough people or vans to respond to every nonviolent incident, the promising early results suggest STAR could be expanded to help the police deal with more non-violent incidents.
According to Chief of Police Paul Pazen, the goal now is to fill out the alternative program so that every neighborhood can use its services at all hours, instead of just weekdays during normal business hours. Doing so would cost nearly $3 million, but Pazan says it should be possible to make it happen by the end of this year through a grant from Denver’s sales-tax-funded mental health fund.
“I think it shows how much officers are buying into this, realizing that these individuals need a focused level of care,” said Matthew Lunn, who authored the report.
For Pazan, transferring low-level calls to civilian teams is not about reallocating money, but rather, about solving two problems at once: getting harmless residents the help they need while letting police focus on other things.
“I want the police department to focus on police issues,” Pazen said. “We have more than enough work with regards to violent crime, property crime, and traffic safety, and if something like STAR or any other support system can lighten the load on mental health calls for service, substance abuse calls for service, and low-level issues, that frees up law enforcement to address crime issues.”
With the success of Denver’s STAR team, we sincerely hope more cities start to employ this alternative policing method.