In September 2020 Golda Barton’s 13-year-old autistic son became frantic with anxiety the first day she had to return to work after several months at home. His mother called 911 and asked for a crisis intervention team. The boy ran when Salt Lake City police arrived. One of the officers chasing him shot him 11 times, leaving him in critical condition. According to the family’s GoFundMe page set up to cover the boy’s medical bills, in spring 2021 he had to undergo a complex nerve transplant surgery, one of a line of medical procedures and has endured intractable pain.
This is an “especially shocking” example of what happens when police officers are first responders to a mental crisis. This is according to Stanford University researchers Jaymes Pyne and Thomas Dee, who wrote in a study that describes success with a new approach: sending trained health care responders out on these calls in place of cops.
Their findings, published on Wednesday in Science Advances, show that the “community response” tactic in a six-month pilot program in Denver led to a 34 percent decline in reports of less serious crimes targeted by the program and prevented almost 1,400 criminal offenses. The results show that the traditional police-first approach to these incidents is four times more expensive than a community response approach.
“There may also be a favorable political context. These types of reforms should appeal to all segments of society,” Dee, a senior fellow with the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, says. “If your politics are back the blue’, you should be excited because many officers don’t want the service calls being handled through community response.” Dee says that allowing police to concentrate on their training and competencies will “improve retention of the best police officers.”
“Dee says that those who advocate defunding police should “find a lot to love because it reduces police operational footprints in the community and creates a case for reducing police budgets
This program is a step towards real solutions to the so-called “revolving door” associated with low-level offenses. He says, “If we can stabilize people with mental health conditions, that’s going be reduce their involvement in other types of harmful behavior and that’s good news for everyone.”
The Denver pilot’s Support Team Assistance Response program (STAR) is one of three reform-oriented programs that can be used to respond to low-level crimes that could involve a mental crisis. Two of the programs still involve the police: one trains them to respond to crisis situations and the other is a co response model that partners mental health professionals with cops. The STAR program is based on an older program called CAHOOTS . It was started in Eugene, Ore. and avoids a police response. STAR relies on a mobile emergency response van staffed with a mental health practitioner and a paramedic who have been specifically trained for the job.
During the six-month pilot in Denver, eight precincts received low-level calls from the STAR team. These included intoxication, well being checks, and trespassing. As long as there was not evidence of weapons, threats, or violence.
The team members responded to 748 incidents during that time. About a third of the incidents were requested by police. The STAR team participants were the first to respond in the second third of the cases. They did not need to call for assistance from police.
Compared with rates of criminal offenses in the same precincts before the program was piloted and with those in precincts that did not use it during the same six-month period, the researchers estimate that there were 1,376 fewer low-level offenses during the pilot.
The number of higher-level crimes did not change. Experts in criminal justice have predicted that there would be a correlation between lower levels of low-level crime and higher rates of more serious offenses. This is known as the “broken Windows” theory. Using STAR instead of a conventional police response for low-level incidents did not result in an increase or decrease in serious crimes.
” These types of community-response model that involve mental health professionals and not the police in low-severity calls seem like they work,” says Pyne (a research associate and socioologist at Stanford’s John W. Gardner Centre for Youth and Their Communities). These results are one of the first pieces that provide “credible, plausible evidence” that these programs work.
Expenditures to provide help could also drop if health workers turn up instead of the police. Dee and Pyne estimated that the $208,141 program cost Denver about $151 for each incident. In contrast, if the people involved were funneled through the criminal justice system, the estimated cost would be $646 per person, more than four times higher.
“It turns to be that non-police-centered strategies are not only better at reducing crime, but they are also less expensive and don’t have the negative lateral consequences associated policing,” Vitale states. The potential lateral consequences of police on a scene include costly hospital visits and incarceration. “Police don’t usually have the ability to solve these problems in the field,” Vitale says. “So their options are limited to emergency room and arrests, both which are extremely costly and do not provide good outcomes .
Dee points out that it’s not only cost-effective, but also humane. It’s humane for people in distress to receive health care .”
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Denver officials are satisfied enough with the results to increase funding for STAR. Pyne says that the co-response model is currently being tested in San Mateo County California. This is where cities with and without the program will be compared.
” It’s going to important to see if this model works at scale for Denver and if other cities can replicate this success,” Dee states. “But the message today is that there is extraordinary promise in these sorts of innovations.”