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6-Month Experiment Replacing Denver Police With Mental Health Teams Dubbed A Success

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's turn now to Denver, where mental health teams have been subbing in for police on certain calls. That six-month experiment has now been dubbed a success, and city leaders are poised to expand it in a big way with an infusion of tax money. Some advocates say spending on police alternatives needs to include a reduction in police funding overall. Colorado Public Radio's David Sachs reports.

DAVID SACHS, BYLINE: It's 5 degrees in downtown Denver. Chris Richardson just helped a man who was hallucinating and walking around with nothing on his feet. So he gave him some shoes.

CHRIS RICHARDSON: All he needed in that moment was shoes. And we just built a relationship that hopefully, if he sees us again, that we can have that ongoing conversation about connecting under that long-term support.

SACHS: Richardson is part of Denver's Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR, which replaces police officers with social workers and paramedics in nonviolent situations. On weekdays, he and a partner drive a van donated by the police department. Dispatch sends them on calls that would otherwise go to police. City cops only get 40 hours of training for behavioral health calls, but...

RICHARDSON: My whole career has been built on developing relationships and how do I navigate the community and how do I provide stuff to people through my - you know, the collaborations of community supports. And I know that really well. I don't know that officers have that full Rolodex that I might have.

SACHS: Richardson is a clinical social worker and addiction specialist with the Mental Health Center of Denver. He's part of a team that got $200,000 to treat behavioral health episodes without a gun and a badge.

RICHARDSON: On some of these calls, like this most recent one, this gentleman was, you know - he was a bit intoxicated. So he ran the risk of having a public intoxication thing.

SACHS: Like an arrest or a court summons.

LESLIE HEROD: It'll help us to begin to break the cycle of incarceration because this is a cycle.

SACHS: Leslie Herod represents Denver in the Colorado Legislature. She helped bring STAR to the city after seeing similar work in Eugene, Ore.

HEROD: Because people don't just go in for one time and then they're forgotten about forever. No. It's about a cycle of substance use, of mental health crisis, of inappropriate law enforcement response and an inappropriate criminal justice response.

SACHS: Six months in, the team responded to almost 750 calls. Not one interaction led to an arrest.

PAUL PAZEN: If you hear about it, it's just, like, common sense. Oh, yeah. Why aren't we doing that?

SACHS: That's Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen, who partnered with Herod to start STAR. He wants it available around the clock. This year, it'll see a jolt of $1.5 million from the city's general fund, an amount that could be doubled by matching money from a mental health sales tax voters passed in 2019. That would multiply STAR's budget by 15 times. However it expands, Chief Pazen sees STAR as a way to free up officers to handle violent crime and property crime, not as a reason to replace policing dollars with behavioral health dollars.

PAZEN: Under-resourcing law enforcement kind of gets us into the same place of under-resourcing mental health services over the years, right?

SACHS: Policing and jailing typically make up about 30% of Denver's budget. Denver P.D. estimates that STAR can handle about 3% of emergency calls. But Denver City Council member Candi CdeBaca thinks if police save money on emergency calls, they shouldn't get to keep it.

CANDI CDEBACA: Redeploying police with the dollars saved from addressing mental health in a better way is not the answer.

SACHS: CdeBaca says the STAR program scratches an itch but should only spark more changes that replace cops with other services. She floated a doomed bill last year to abolish the police and create a peacekeeping department focused on root causes of crime.

CDEBACA: We need to reinvest dollars saved into the actual alternative.

SACHS: Like behavioral health care and housing people, she says, in a city where almost 70% of the people who needed help from STAR didn't have a place to live.

For NPR News, I'm David Sachs in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "LINKED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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