Social Workers Instead of Police? Denver’s Promising Start

Instead of a police car, a van with bottled water and snacks.
Photo: courtesy of Caring for Denver

A 911 dispatch looks pretty much the same no matter where you are in the United States: sirens, strobe lights atop police cruisers, and first responders armed with rifles and pepper spray, regardless of the reason for the call. But if you dial 911 in Denver, you might be greeted instead by a mental health clinician and paramedic driving a custom van stocked with food, water, and blankets. Over the past six months, the city’s Support Team Assisted Response Program, known as STAR, has sent social workers instead of cops for non-emergency calls, with surprisingly good results. . According to a report released last month, STAR responded to 748 incidents – up to six calls per day – and none of the calls required police support, led to arrests, or resulted in a prison sentence. Several of the incidents illustrate how far the new approach is from the old one. In an example from the beginning of the year, someone called 911 because a man walking barefoot in downtown Denver had become restless (not surprising, as it was only five degrees outside ). The STAR stakeholders bought the men’s shoes.

The roots of the program can be traced back to 2016, when a dozen social workers began to co-respond with Denver Police on certain calls. The program was significantly expanded after passing a ballot measurement in 2018, this allowed $ 45 million in sales tax revenue per year to fund mental health and addiction resources in the city. It’s up to the police dispatcher to direct the call to STAR, and so far only about 3 percent of all 911 calls have been diverted to the police. A third of the incidents STAR responds to are called by the officers themselves, usually when they know the team would be a better fit than the police – and that’s really the goal, says Lorez Meinhold, executive director of Caring for Foundation Denver. “Whether you’re talking about STAR or co-responders, it’s about those calls that go into 911,” she told Curbed, “how we take them away from the justice system and direct them to care.”

Prior to setting up the STAR program, Meinhold traveled with a Denver cohort of social workers and mental health professionals to Eugene, Ore., To meet with leaders of Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS, which is become the the gold standard of crisis intervention programs. Launched in 1989, CAHOOTS now takes up to 20 percent of all 911 calls, saving the city an estimated $ 15 million per year by avoiding police overtime and emergency room visits. . In a 2020 NPR interview, ACHOOTS crisis worker Ebony Morgan said she joined the team after her own father was killed in a police encounter, realizing the potential of the program to avoid such a tragedy. “In 30 years, we have never had a serious injury or death for which our team was responsible,” she said. “And I think it’s important to note.”

While Meinhold agreed that the CAHOOTS model was exceptionally effective, she also found that the needs of Eugene, a college town of 168,000, were very different from those of Denver, a city of 750,000 in a metro area of 3 million inhabitants. . Although the voting measure was widely popular – over 70% voted yes – there were concerns that residents would need to warm up to the idea of ​​unaccompanied social workers answering 911 calls. But, by Coincidentally, when STAR took its first call on June 1, 2020, Black Lives Matter 5280 activists marched across Denver for four days to protest the murder of George Floyd as well as the encounters with local police that resulted in the beatings or deaths of unarmed black residents (leading to a lawsuit against the Denver Police Department for unconstitutional use of force). Suddenly, the Denver initiative was presented nationwide as an example – big cities are launch similar efforts; San Francisco now has two “street crisis” teams last month and New York wants manage a program in Harlem – even if it had been offered in different circumstances. “We never tried to say, ‘This money has to come from the police,’” Meinhold says – and, in fact, the program remains closely associated with DPD. But she believes the demonstrated social benefits and cost savings will gradually increase the proportion of calls that go to STAR, as well as Eugene. “We thought we could pilot it and, in the first six months, work to expand it to more districts.” (It is now limited to certain neighborhoods and only operates Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 a.m.)

At the start of the STAR program, some of the marches held in the city were demand justice for Elijah McClain, an unarmed 23-year-old black man who died after meeting with police in Aurora, a small town adjacent to Denver. On the evening of August 24, 2019, a call was made to 911 describing a “suspicious” person walking near a busy road, making erratic gestures. “You would think that would be a call that a STAR or CAHOOTS model would be appropriate to respond to,” says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who led a independent inquiry into McClain’s death released last month. Instead, McClain was apprehended and detained by the police, and first responders knocked him out with an injection of a powerful sedative, ketamine; He died three days later. In fact, one of the three officers had was trained in crisis intervention, but he did not intervene to end the use of force, which Smith said shows the department did not appreciate the training. But it also illustrates the limits of police reform – and how different the response would be just three miles west. After McClain’s death, Aurora’s new policies now require response police to only determine whether a crime is actually committed. Otherwise, they’re supposed to leave. McClain, it turned out, had made strange gestures because he listened to his headphones and waved his hands to the sound of the music, Smith said. “If they had spent 30 seconds watching him under the new policy, they could have let him go home.”

While these types of approaches can be successful in diverting people from the justice system to the health care system, the country’s mental health response has its own issues, notes Smith, who spent five years as a lawyer for the civil rights in the Department of Justice during the Obama administration. “If you have a functioning health care system, it’s great to have these policing alternatives,” he says. “Right now there is a breakdown in the social service network that is preventing people from going into crisis in the first place.” What social workers really need are more options – the artistic term is “referral pathways” – that offer comprehensive alternatives to criminalization, says Melvin Wilson, senior policy consultant for the National Association of Social Workers. , who co-wrote a October 2020 Report on pre-arrest diversion and 911 alternatives. “Eventually this will become more of a community model, but we don’t want to replace the police,” he says. “This national discussion on police reinvestment and money transfer is really about creating more funding in communities to attract more people to local mental health agencies. This could include creating an entirely separate number to call; we think that up to half of the 240 million 911 calls made in the United States each year are to people with mental illness or disabilities. Last year, Congress designated 988 as the national suicide prevention hotline, but that type of service could be expanded to pick up where 911 leaves off, Wilson says, and include a “community worker»Hurry up to deal with all mental health crises.

Meinhold agrees that the root of the problem is the underfunding of local health systems. “We haven’t addressed the issue of mental health,” she says. “But until we improve the system, we need to create these tipping points to help connect people to care.” She reports a case where 911 was called to defuse a situation at an urban campsite. According to police arriving at the scene, a homeless woman was acting aggressively. But in the STAR report, a woman with an intellectual disability was scared because police had conducted anti-homeless sweeps in the area. After social workers spoke to her, she was able to tell her that she actually had housing and the medications she needed to take, both of which were provided. “It’s the same person – that’s how the call comes in,” Meinhold says. “We build these programs and systems that become very siled. But it’s important that we put people first.

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