A concerned passerby dialed 911 to report a sobbing woman sitting alone on a curb in downtown Denver.
Instead of a police officer, dispatchers sent Carleigh Sailon, a seasoned mental health professional with a penchant for wearing Phish t-shirts, to see what was going on.
The woman, who was unhoused, was overwhelmed and scared. She’d ended up in an unfamiliar part of town. It was blazing hot and she didn’t know where to go. Sailon gave the woman a snack and some water and asked how she could help. Could she drive her somewhere? The woman was pleasantly surprised.
“She was like, ‘Who are you guys? And what is this?’” Sailon said, recounting the call.
This, Sailon explained, is Denver’s new Support Team Assistance Response program, which sends a mental health professional and a paramedic to some 911 calls instead of police.
Since its launch June 1, the STAR van has responded to more than 350 calls, replacing police in matters that don’t threaten public safety and are often connected to unmet mental or physical needs. The goal is to connect people who pose no danger with services and resources while freeing up police to respond to other calls. The team, who is not armed, has not called police for backup, Sailon said.
“We’re really trying to create true alternatives to us using police and jails,” said Vinnie Cervantes with Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, one of the organizations that helped start the program.
Though it had been years in the making, the program launched just four days after protests erupted in Denver calling for transformational changes to policing in response to the death of George Floyd.
“It really kind of proves that we’ve been working for the right thing, and that these ideas are getting the recognition they should,” Cervantes said.
No day is alike according to the two professionals from the Mental Health Center of Denver who work out of the van — Sailon and Chris Richardson.
The team has responded to an indecent exposure call that turned out to be a woman changing clothes in an alley because she was unhoused and had no other private place to go. They’ve been called out to a trespassing call for a man who was setting up a tent near someone’s home. They’ve helped people experiencing suicidal thoughts, people slumped against a fence, people simply acting strange.
“It’s amazing how much stuff comes across 911 as the general, ‘I don’t know what to do, I guess I’ll call 911,’” Richardson said. “Someone sets up a tent? 911. I can’t find someone? 911.”
The city has touted the program, still in its pilot, as an example of progress as it is barraged with criticism during and after the protests.
“It’s the future of law enforcement, taking a public health view on public…