Denver’s STAR Van Pilot Program Offers an Alternative to 911

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In July, I interviewed Angelo Pinto, a lawyer and activist who was the first person I’d ever heard use the term “prison abolitionist.” When I asked him to demystify the concept of defunding the police, he gave the following explanation,

“There are alternative first responders systems. So, oftentimes if there’s a mental health crisis, if there is a domestic violence crisis, if there’s a family crisis, folks call 911 when in actuality, a trained professional, let’s say a mental health professional, would actually be the best person to call and intervene and actually preserve life and rectify the situation. But because of the way the system currently exists, what happens is that the police are called in. Unfortunately, in some instances, they use extreme force and sometimes they use deadly force. So that is the basic sentiment around defunding. It isn’t just defunding the police and nothing else, but it’s defunding a system that hasn’t proven to make communities safer and reinvesting. We know that more policing spending doesn’t make communities safer, but providing more resources to communities is what will make communities safer.”

Unbeknownst to me, the Denver Justice Project had already begun to dispatch a pilot program that started in June and is planned to run for 6 months. It is known as the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) and it’s a mobile service that provides free help to folx suffering from mental health crises and non-criminal emergencies.

On September 12, Vinnie Cervantes of the Denver Alliance for Street Response said in an interview with NPR that the STAR van has already responded to 600 calls “mostly trespassing calls that involve folks that are unhoused. We had a lot of sweeps of unhoused folks recently, so our city would go and push people out of their encampments where they're trying to survive.”

Alternative policing programs like the STAR van and the Crisis Assistance Helping Out in The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, are hopefully the future for non-violent emergencies.

One of the most tragic, and most recent, cases of police murder involved a Black man who was killed in his home in the midst of a mental health episode. Damien Daniels, a 30-year-old military veteran was was shot and killed when San Antonio deputies responded to a 911 call seeking help for Damien, who was suicidal and delusional. If his loved ones had a different plan of action, an alternative number to call to get trained help, perhaps Damien would have still been alive today.

What the STAR van and the CAHOOTS programs prove is that defunding the police does not have to be an all-out fight to the death, us versus them, civil war mentality. Defunding the police can be rational, humane and as simple as offering alternative trauma responders to help citizens of all classes and races, instead of historically bigoted, all-white law enforcement officers.