A program to remove police from some 911 calls in Denver helped reduce crime, study finds

A program in Denver removing police from certain 911 calls led to a 34% reduction in low-level crimes, according to a study released Wednesday amid a growing wave of cities changing their responses to mental health crises.

The Support Team Assistance Response, or STAR, program prevented nearly 1,400 crimes during its six-month pilot launched in June 2020, the results showed.

"We think we have something that's really seminal in terms of suggesting the promise of this fairly radical reform of how we do emergency response," said study author Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Education who studies public policy.

The growth of nonpolice response programs has accelerated since calls for changes to policing after the deaths in 2020 of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, who was suffering a mental health crisis when he died in police custody. 

Mental health advocates and law enforcement experts often agree 911 calls related to mental health crises, substance use disorders, homelessness and other social welfare issues do not need a police response.

More than 1 in 5 people fatally shot by police since 2015 had a mental illness, according to a Washington Post database of fatal shootings by on-duty officers.

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Similar programs have cropped up in New York, Washington and San Francisco, and organizers cite the program in Eugene, Oregon, known as Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, as a model of success.

Though the specific structures of the programs often vary in each city, the goal is to team up mental health clinicians and emergency medical technicians to respond to certain 911 calls instead of police officers. The programs are different from Crisis Intervention Training for police and co-responder models, which pair police officers with nonpolice responders.

"It's worth underscoring: Whether your politics are 'back the blue' or 'defund the police,' there's a lot to like about this type of program," Dee said.

Denver's Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program paired medics and clinicians in a van to respond to disorderly conduct, trespassing and drug use.
Denver's Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program paired medics and clinicians in a van to respond to disorderly conduct, trespassing and drug use.

How the Denver pilot succeeded

In Denver, the pilot consisted of two-person teams of a medic and a clinician in a van from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays in eight police precincts. The Stanford study focused on crime data related to offenses the program was largely intended to target, such as disorderly conduct, trespassing and drug use, but it also examined trends in crimes such as burglary or weapons charges. It looked at data from before and during the pilot as well as in the eight police precincts where the pilot operated and those where it didn't.

Taking police out of 911 calls for the targeted type of offenses did not lead to a significant increase in other crimes, Dee said, challenging a belief that policing "low-level" offenses prevents more serious crime.

The analysis controlled for a variety of factors that could have attributed to crime reduction in the study area, such as the time of year and the overall trends in crime in the precincts where the the pilot occurred, Dee said.

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The STAR teams aimed to connect people in crisis to care, rather than arrest them or issue a citation.

Dee pointed to "genuine, authentic" reductions in crime. It's not just that police weren't responding; therefore, fewer crimes were recorded, he said. The study found there were fewer incidents that otherwise would have gotten a police response over the six-month period.

According to the researchers' analysis, STAR's response to 748 calls would have meant an expected 1,047 fewer recorded crimes. The actual reduction was 1,376 fewer offenses across the eight precincts over the six months. The data showed recorded offenses were lower during the hours when STAR wasn't operating in the precincts where the pilot was held, Dee said.

"When someone's in mental health distress, that continues. There's a kind of recidivism to these lower-level crimes when there are some behavioral health problems going on. But by providing health care, instead of an arrest, (STAR) may have prevented that recidivism, prevented the future events that might occur in the coming days and weeks for a person who's not getting treatment," Dee said.

The six-month pilot was $208,141, meaning the 1,376 fewer offenses cost about $151 each to reduce, according to the study. Had each offense been handled in the criminal justice system, the cost would be an average of $646, based on estimates of the cost of prosecution and imprisonment, the study found.

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Vé Gulbrandsen, center, an EMT with CAHOOTS, helps screen guests for health concerns at the Egan Warming Center in Springfield, Ore., in March 2021.
Vé Gulbrandsen, center, an EMT with CAHOOTS, helps screen guests for health concerns at the Egan Warming Center in Springfield, Ore., in March 2021.

Denver program grows

The study was published in the peer-reviewed Science Advances journal as the STAR program grows.

Vinnie Cervantes, who works with the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response and serves on the STAR Community Advisory Committee, said the idea for the program dates back several years before its launch during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"That sense that we can do something better with regards to our unhoused community, our community experiencing mental health crisis and substance use (disorders), knowing also that those issues are increasing, especially with the pandemic, that really drove us to want to create a program like that," Cervantes said.

What started as a six-month trial in the center of Denver has expanded in the city, and STAR teams have responded to more calls this year than throughout the pilot program, said Tristan Sanders, director of community and behavioral health for Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment.

The program has a budget of $1.3 million to $1.6 million for the year. Half of the funding comes through a city tax initiative that created the Caring for Denver Foundation and the other half through general city tax dollars, Sanders said.

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The results from the Stanford study show how worthwhile the investment in the expansion is, Sanders said. "It's really a testament to the process that followed, and that there's really fidelity in how those calls are triaged. In other words, how they come in, the questions that are asked, and that really, when the STAR response is the response that's put in place, it's the right response," he said.

Cervantes said the early results show the STAR program is "clearly a better approach than having police show up to all these different situations that they don't need to be present for." As the program expands, he wants it to better serve communities disproportionally impacted by police violence and mental health issues.

One of the ideas underpinning a community responder program is that after a crisis is de-escalated, a person can be connected to longer-term health care options and services.

"We just don't quite have that. We're kind of building that out right now," Cervantes said.

Sanders said there were plans to include more community-based services in the response. Housing and food were identified as the primary additional needs after a STAR call. The goal is for a "warm handoff" to community organizations that can provide similar services, not "just a brochure," he said.

Sanders said he expects the call and response volume to increase as the program expands and meets more demand. He hopes it can reach a baseline where crisis response is not as needed because people's needs are met before they reach crisis.

"Right now, this may be the only line of support that some people are accessing," Sanders said. "I would hope that five, seven years from now or something, there's this really meaningful community network of supports that exists there currently but people are accessing it in a much different way, and that it's truly accessible to everybody. That it's meeting a large number of folks in a really meaningful way."

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.

Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Denver non-police teams for some 911 calls reduced crime, study says