In the past few years, some cities started implementing programs that dispatch mental health specialists instead of police officers to deal with some nonviolent crimes. Researchers from Stanford University examined Denver’s support team assistance response (STAR) pilot program — which sends mental health responders to offenses like disorderly conduct or trespassing — and found that the pilot reduced minor crimes by 34%.
“I’m extraordinarily encouraged by the promise evidenced by the Denver pilot,” Thomas Dee, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and co-author on the paper, which appeared in Science Advances, told TODAY. “But I also know that we need to continue to study efforts to replicate and scale the success of this innovation.”
The researchers examined the program’s impact on minor crimes and compared them to reported crimes occurring prior to STAR.
“We see these extraordinary results from the Denver pilot: substantial reductions in targeted low-level crimes without exacerbating high-level crimes,” Dee said. “You might have been concerned, for example, that sending a health care team to deal with, say, disorderly conduct in the absence of an armed police officer … might escalate the incident. We see no evidence (of that).”
What’s more, soon after community responders started working in the field, the researchers noticed a “dramatic decline in these lower-level crimes,” Dee said.
“It reduced these lower level crimes even during days and hours when the community responders were not available, and what we think is going on there is a spillover benefit. If someone’s in a substance abuse crisis or a mental health crisis, that’s a fairly persistent state,” Dee said. “If you bring them health care, that’s going to prevent the crime they might commit the next day or the day after.”
Mental health advocates agree that the study’s results seem promising and reinforce what many suspected about how to best help someone in crisis.
“Having law enforcement respond to (people in a mental health crisis) is not efficient,” Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told TODAY. “When we look at the response rate and the reduction in offenses, it’s really compelling evidence that this model not only makes financial sense, but from a human perspective it provides the best outcome for individuals in a mental health crisis.”
Dee noted that STAR was well thought out and executed and also included a lot of buy-in from all the agencies involved, which helped its success because sometimes the police and mental health specialists needed to work together.
“Sometimes the community responders might need to call in the police. As an aside, that didn’t happen in Denver,” Dee said. “During the six-month pilot period, (there were) 748 field calls, and their operations reports indicate they never once called the police. However, the Denver police sometimes called the community responders when they were in the field and saw something that clearly called for their expertise.”
Wesolowski said that police departments often back such programs.
“We’ve had strong law enforcement support for this movement, as well. A lot of their resources go to responding to people in a mental health crisis, and they recognize that providing a mental health support is necessary in these situations,” she said. “This type of programming really tries as much as possible to take law enforcement out of the equation and focus on health and not handcuffs.”
She added that the study’s results indicate that people committing serious crimes are not people in a mental health crisis.
“Mental illness is not the cause of violence. People with mental illness are not more violent than their peers and are often more likely the victims of violence than the perpetrators,” she said. “They did not see a reduction in the non-STAR related programming because mental illness isn’t the cause of those more violent crimes.”
Dee said that more examination of similar programs being implemented across the country is needed. It’s unclear whether other cities will be able to create programs that are as successful or even if Denver’s will continue to see such results at it increases its reach. But he also noted that community-based responders in mental health crisis should be popular across party lines.
“This seems like such a common sense reform and one that could be money-saving for cities because of its cost effectiveness," he said. "At some level, it’s just a fundamentally humane reform.”