Alex caught up with District 9 Council Woman Candi CdeBaca to talk about the origins of Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) and this was her summary of the programs origins in her most recent Newsletter. Thank you Council Woman for your interest in listening and working directly with the community!
Hello, District 9!
We’re deep in election season right now, with candidate forums and debates happening across the city at a quick pace, and little opportunity for factchecking in the moment.
In many of these events, I noticed that the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program was getting name-checked because of its national recognition as a successful evidence-based intervention to reduce crime. And with that name-checking, the topic of who to credit with creating STAR has also come up: In one forum, my colleague Councilman Flynn stated that STAR was a program solely developed by Denver Police, while in a mayoral debate, Rep. Leslie Herod stated, “That’s why I created STAR” in response to a question about the need for mental health and substance use treatment in the city. Both of these claims raised a few eyebrows in the audience, including mine!
Last Friday, Alex Landau of the Denver Justice Project (DJP) dropped by the D9 office to say hello, so my team and I took the opportunity to ask him directly about the origins of the STAR program. Afterward, we also checked in with other members of the working group that developed and implemented STAR to get more of the story.
One of my priorities in office is to help my constituents understand how systemic change actually happens in our city, so I’m going to take some time on this snowy day to share this history lesson with you:
In 2017, DJP organized an event called “It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This,” focusing on alternatives to law enforcement and the carceral system for achieving safety and justice in over-policed communities. As part of this, DJP’s Roshan Bliss reached out to Ben Brubaker, the director of the program through the White Bird Clinic, who presented the event’s keynote on the CAHOOTS model for using nonpolice first responders in nonviolent crisis situations.
Following that event, Roshan and Ben stayed in conversation through 2017 and 2018 about how Denver could adopt a similar model, and DJP brought the idea to more community partners, including Servicios de la Raza and Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR).
Eventually, they presented the idea to then-Commander Pazen, who was enthusiastic and brought up Caring for Denver as a potential funder for a pilot. When he became police chief, Pazen’s continued support opened doors and kept the effort moving forward.
In May 2019, representatives from DJP, Servicios, DASHR, Mental Health Center of Denver (now WellPower), DPD, Denver’s 911, and Caring for Denver (including Rep. Herod) made an exploratory trip to Eugene to learn firsthand how the CAHOOTS model worked in practice.
After the Eugene trip, this coalition began convening a working group to develop a pilot program for mental health first responders in Denver. The working group was co-facilitated by Michael Sapp, a Department of Safety staff member, AND Jason Vitello, a community facilitator with expertise in public health. (It’s important to note that the people I spoke with agree that although a funder for the pilot, Caring for Denver was not involved in the program development, implementation, or operations that came out of this working group.)
Importantly, the working group grew to include impacted community members and their family members, as well as organizations like Denver Homeless Out Loud and the Harm Reduction Action Center, which are made up of and/or serve the people most likely to need mental health first responders: people experiencing homelessness, people with severe mental illness, and people dealing with substance use disorders.
Among them, I want to highlight the contributions of the late Janet van Der Laak for her tireless advocacy on behalf of her son Matt. Shortly after I took office, she emailed me about her son’s mental health struggles and the endless cycle of courts and jails instead of treatment and support. We connected her with the working group meetings (which my office was also attending at that point), and her voice was essential to understanding the deep need and stakes for starting a program like CAHOOTS in Denver.
On November 6, 2019, Chief Pazen gave a briefing before Council’s Safety Committee on the pilot program, and he opened by saying, “Credit where credit is due: This is truly a community-led project.” You can watch the archived video of the meeting HERE, which includes powerful public comment from stakeholders.
The 6-month pilot for STAR launched in June 2020, and at that time, its “home” in city government was in the Department of Safety, where 911 also resides. When it was expanded beyond the pilot, STAR transitioned into the Department of Public Health and Environment. There’s more to write about what’s happened since that time and the future of the STAR program, but I’ll save that for another newsletter!
It’s not uncommon for politicians to take credit for innovative changes that we owe to community members who worked and advocated for years, often in the face of rejection from the powers that be. In the case of STAR, the coalition of organizations, service providers, and community members were lucky to have the support of city agencies to connect them with resources and keep up momentum even during the COVID shutdowns in 2020.
But let’s not forget that the idea of bringing nonpolice crisis intervention to Denver arose out of community activism—and that the subtantive work of co-developing and implementing the program was truly a collective effort. It’s my belief that recentering this collective, community-led vision is essential to the success of STAR going forward, even as it expands and scales up.
It’s important to really know the details of our history, and to understand policy change and movement-building in our communities as a collective story. And it’s important to recognize the tireless work of ordinary people in making our city better, healthier, and safer for all of our residents. I see you, I appreciate you, and I work alongside you!
Thank you, Alex, for coming by and schooling my D9 team on this piece of Denver’s recent history!