This report first aired in December 2021.
Around the country, violent crime is up in major cities, police agencies are short-staffed, and activists are still calling to Defund the Police. One place where that dynamic is in play is Denver, where we recently checked out a new program that sends social workers instead of police on some emergency calls.
A double shooting in Washington D.C. Surveillance video captures the alleged gunmen. The crimes are on the heels of a 6-year-old girl fatally shot, and a man killed by a stray bullet on a walk with his wife. Amid the summer crime wave, Police Chief Robert Contee holds a remarkable news conference.
Chief Robert Contee / D.C. Police Chief (July 23): The reality is, we have a shrinking workforce. I have a definitive amount of resources: 200-something officers less this year than what I had last year.
Exactly one year earlier, with D.C. homicides hurtling toward a startling 16-year high, the city council slashed police funding by $15 million and froze hiring.
Urban areas across the nation are reporting similar challenges, fewer police, more crime, calls to defund. When we recently visited Denver, Colorado, police officials told us they were down 140 officers, with emergency calls on the rise.
Here, they're trying a new approach. The STAR van program, short for “Support Team Assisted Response.” A paramedic and a mental health professional are dispatched to emergency calls where police help isn’t required.
Carleigh Sailon is the STAR operations manager with Denver 9-1-1.
Sharyl: Can you summarize how the decisions are made on what kind of call might be appropriate for the STAR van?
Carleigh Sailon: So if you're experiencing a low level behavioral health crisis, or need a welfare check, or are requiring resources for someone who's unhoused in our community, they'll screen for all those situations and make sure that the scene is safe, and then STAR will be dispatched to that location.
Chris Richardson is with the Mental Health Center of Denver.
Chris Richardson: Historically, we've always sent police, paramedics, or fire to everything. And as community needs continue to develop and be different as we move on in years, I think having a behavioral health response is just an added component to the response.
The STAR van is the pet project of Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen.
Paul Pazen: The program itself launched on June 1, 2020, right in the middle of the movement that we find ourselves in post-George Floyd. Just like many police departments across the country, particularly the bigger cities, faced these types of defund, abolish, reallocate funds to something other than policing.
Some have billed Denver’s STAR van as one way to replace the police amid all the controversies. But Pazen began promoting the idea for the project in 2016 when he was a police district commander.
The idea came from Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program— short for “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets.” An added tool, Pazen says, not a move to “Defund.”
Pazan: When we look at the more than 600,000 times that somebody calls 911 for a varying degree of issues, what STAR can handle fully built-out is about 2.8% of our calls for service. A relatively small number.
Sharyl: As far as, though, if anyone is trying to portray this as a successful “defund the police” effort, that's not how you see it?
Paul Pazen: Not at all. Our community wants to be safe, and defunding the police is not part of increasing public safety. Name a system that you take money away from, and you get better outcomes as a result of it. Name a system.
Money was added, not taken, from police to pay for the STAR van. After about 13-hundred emergency calls, the $1.4 million pilot program was recently deemed a success and expanded.
The morning we spent with the STAR team, they didn’t have any calls to respond to. But with Denver’s significant homeless population, drugs, and mental illness advocates say there’s lots of demand.
Pazan: We want better outcomes for our community. And this means the individual that's in crisis can have a better outcome, as well as freeing up law enforcement to address violent crime, property crime, and traffic safety. It is a win-win for everybody that's involved.
Sharyl (on-camera): Chief Pazan says the Denver police also have a program where outreach coordinators follow up with the homeless and mentally ill.
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