Police response to mentally ill people is under scrutiny. Denver may offer way forward.

A year-old program called STAR sends a social worker and paramedic to low-level emergency calls involving people in crisis.

The STAR program in Denver rolled out last year as the nation was expressing outrage at the death of George Floyd under the knee of then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.NBC News

DENVER — The calls come into 911 every day: A homeless man is standing outside a liquor store screaming and acting aggressive. A woman is having a mental health crisis and says she can’t feel her body or face. A man who was escorted away by police 90 minutes ago has returned and is exposing himself and urinating on buildings.

Instead of being routed to police, this type of call is handed over to STAR, short for Support Team Assisted Response, a year-old program that sends a social worker and paramedic to low-level emergency calls. Of the 1,351 calls STAR responded to over the last year, not one had to request backup from the Denver Police Department.

STAR rolled out in June 2020 just as the nation convulsed with outrage over the death of George Floyd under the knee of then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin and protesters demanded sweeping police reform.

Now, STAR is being expanded citywide, and other communities around the country are looking at it as a model for how to handle emergency calls involving unarmed mentally ill peoplein crisis.

Inspired by a 3-decade-old program in Eugene, Oregon, STAR also launched at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated stressors were ramping up. Mental health-related calls in Denver rose 17 percent last year over the three-year average, according to a city report.

"We try to let people feel heard about what’s going on that day, and oftentimes I’ll just ask, 'What would be helpful to you in this moment? How can we solve this problem today?'" said Carleigh Sailon, a licensed clinical social worker who staffs the STAR van.

Like the call that came in on a blistering hot day in August.

“A passerby had called about a woman who was sitting on a curb crying and drinking a beer, and she appeared to be in distress, and they thought she looked like she needed help,” Sailon said.

It turned out the woman, who was unhoused, had been stranded in an unfamiliar part of the city. What she needed at the moment was a ride to a shelter. Sailon and the paramedic put her in the air conditioned van and gave her snacks and water.

“She actually started crying,” Sailon said, “and she said, ‘I can’t believe there’s people who would just show up and give me a ride back where I needed to go.’”

The American Psychological Association said an estimated 20 percent of calls to police involve a mental health or substance abuse issue. A 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a mental health advocacy group, reported that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter.

Denver police receive 40 hours of training in crisis intervention compared to years of coursework for social workers. Sailon said STAR provides an important alternative to the one-size-fits-all approach.

“Police can be triggering, and if people have had unfavorable interactions with law enforcement in the past, that can impact the way that things go,” she said. “The team is really able to sit with people in crisis and in uncomfortable moments and work towards a solution versus kind of hitting the alert button and needing backup all the time.”

The 911 system does not send STAR to situations in which people are armed or violent. Denver’s 911 system fielded almost 6,400 calls from June 2020 to June 2021 that would have been STAR eligible. The team responded to an average of nine calls a day, or just under 3 percent of calls dispatched by 911 in a year across the city. The majority were for trespassing, welfare checks, mental health issues and substance abuse.

“I certainly think that the moment, the movement, that we’re in right now is contributing to raising awareness across the country of alternative response,” said Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen. “If you can lighten your load on these low-level mental health calls, it frees up your officers to address areas they’re more equipped to address in the first place, like the violent crime issues we’re seeing across the country.”

The year-old STAR program sends a social worker and paramedic to low-level emergency calls and has proven so effective in dealing with people in crisis that it is being expanded citywide.

A report by Denver public safety found the STAR team — composed of Sailon, licensed clinical social worker Chris Richardson and a rotating crew of paramedics — was able to resolve the issues six minutes faster than police without acquiring the high costs that come with involving fire departments, emergency medical services and hospitals.

The report also said 34 percent of STAR calls originated with DPD officers who showed up at a scene and asked the social worker and paramedic to take over.

“Our officers have bought into this,” Pazen said. “I hear police officers saying, ‘Hey, is a STAR van available? Can you have them respond?’ I have supervisors and officers saying, ‘When can we get more STAR vans? When can we get more coverage for STAR?’ and I share that with the other police departments and police chiefs that are inquiring about this.”

More than 30 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada have inquired about the program, a police spokesman said. With $1.4 million already set aside and another $1 million requested, STAR is set to expand from one van to four, eventually covering 32 square miles seven days a week, 16 hours a day.

Andrew Dameron, director of Denver 911, credits a long history of partnerships with nonprofit community groups for STAR's effectiveness.

“The thing that will drive success for us more than anything else is, how many folks were we able to actually support in sustaining their mental health and recovery?” Dameron said. “It’s one thing to send the van to somebody who’s experiencing crisis, and then the van leaves and that person is maybe only slightly better off than when we started.

"If we can use the van as a method to educate folks, put them in touch with a larger support structure, then they’ve got a much better chance for success.”