Defunding the Police Actually Makes Us Safer: Denver Has the Receipts

For the past six months, the city of Denver, Colorado has been running a brilliant pilot program to replace police when 911 is called for at least seven different reasons connected to homelessness, substance abuse and poverty.

The STAR (Support-Team Assisted Response) program was inspired by one of my favorite programs in the country – the CAHOOTS emergency response program in Eugene, Oregon – which now handles over 20% of their local 911 calls instead of police – saving lives and saving Eugene millions of dollars in the process. 

The big question about what the CAHOOTS program does in Oregon, though, has always been whether or not it would work in a major American city like Denver – and the STAR program has just answered that question with a resounding “yes.”

Here’s their 6 month reportfor you to read if you’re feeling kind of nerdy right now, but let me break it down for you.

The STAR program decided to spend six months answering seven types of 911 calls in four targeted areas of Denver. Even those choices were smart. They chose one entire policing district so that they could have data on what would happen when they would take over a larger geographical area – and they chose three police precincts – which represent smaller geographical areas, but would still give them really actionable data to work with. 

Of the 748 calls they took during their first six months, not one single person was ever arrested and the Denver Police weren’t even called one single time for backup. Nobody was killed by police. Nobody was sent to jail or given criminal records. And lives were saved. That’s absolutely amazing! 

213 times they responded to calls where people thought they saw someone strange in the area. As we all know, those calls are often forms of racial profiling or what I’d like to call “poverty policing” where someone poor or homeless is simply existing, and it gets on the nerves of more privileged people.

145 times they responded to people in need who just wanted someone kind to check on a loved one.

94 times they responded to someone who needed assistance in their home – sometimes because of mental or physical health challenges.

48 times they responded with love and compassion to people considering suicide. 

Other calls were for public intoxication or even indecent exposure – which is most often because someone homeless couldn’t find a public restroom to use. 

And with all of these calls, police simply weren’t needed. 

This pilot program only operated from 10AM – 6PM, Monday through Friday. Now, my hope is that Denver will properly fund and expand it to a 24/7 program for the entire city. My guess is that instead of them taking 748 calls, that it would expand to over 100,000 calls and that lives would continue to be saved in the process. 

I see this as a form of police abolition. Listen – I want nothing more than for the entire system of policing and mass incarceration in America to be torn down from top to bottom so that we can completely reimagine what public safety looks like. But that’s going to happen step by step – just like Denver is doing. 

We need to find ways in every city in America to take as many responsibilities as possible out of the hands of law enforcement – that includes everything we saw in this pilot program in Denver, like issues of substance abuse, poverty, and mental health, but we also need to expand that to traffic issues, schools, family disputes, and so much more. 

A huge part of the problem with American policing is a math problem. Police in this country make tens of millions of stops and arrests and interactions per year. Reducing that number will reduce the number of people arrested, abused, harmed, and killed.