Denver program that diverts 911 calls to medical professionals inspires federal legislation

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Inspired by a Denver-based alternative emergency response program, US Senator Michael Bennet this week unveiled legislation to fund nationwide initiatives that would send medical professionals instead of police to emergency rooms in mental health and other public health appeals.

Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response program, known as STAR, has served as a model for legislation, which would support programs that pair mental health clinicians with paramedics “to respond to certain calls low risk to the 911 system,” according to a press release. Release.

Metropolitan State University Denver alumni Chris Richardson and Vinnie Cervantes helped launch the service, which is designed to divert low-level calls from police to mental health and healthcare professionals.

Vinnie Cervantes, pictured here, is organizing director of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response. Photo by Alyson McClaran

“Community policing is an essential part of our response to rising crime in our country. This frees law enforcement to focus on violent crime and enables local responders to respond to people experiencing mental health or addiction crises,” Bennet said. “The Colorado model proves that community policing can help defuse encounters and connect people in crisis to mental health services or any other support they need.”

Since launching in 2020, STAR has answered thousands of calls across the city. In February, the Denver City Council approved a $1.4 million contract to help expand the program and increase the number of response vans from one to six.

chris richard
STAR Program Director Chris Richardson and other clinicians answer calls in vans like this. The program grew from a single van to six. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Healthcare professionals responding to mental health, addictions and other public health emergencies are able to “triage and plan next steps at the scene and provide a connection to appropriate services,” said Richardson, associate director of criminal justice services at the Denver Mental Health Center, which runs STAR.

“Hopefully what we’re learning here in Denver can help similar programs,” Richardson told RED in 2020. “I’m proud of Denver. They’re progressive and have taken steps to look internally and find ways better meet the needs of its citizens.

Bennet’s legislation, called the Supporting Mental Assistance Responder Teams Community Policing Act, would expand or create programs that:

  • Pair a mental health clinician with a paramedic or emergency medical technician to respond to certain low-risk calls to the 911 system;
  • Train emergency workers to respond to calls for service and help stabilize encounters;
  • Provide mental health services to people, including those in crisis who may need further assessment and treatment;
  • Stabilize meetings between law enforcement and people in mental health or behavioral crisis and put them in touch with appropriate support programs; and
  • Build case management and outreach teams to follow up with individuals to develop specific solutions to reduce repeat interactions with emergency services.

In addition to STAR, Bennet studied alternative response programs in Grand Junction and Summit County while drafting federal legislation.

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