For the last two years, a person acting erratically in downtown Denver has likely first encountered unarmed health care workers rather than police. That shift stems from the rollout of a program known as Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR, which sends a mental health clinician and paramedic to respond to certain 911 calls about nonviolent behavior.
The program, and others like it, aim to defuse the tensions that can arise when police officers confront civilians in distress. Critics of these experimental programs have suggested that such reduced police involvement could allow crime to flourish. Now, researchers have found that during its pilot phase, the STAR program did not appear to lead to more violent crime. And reports of minor crimes substantially decreased, the researchers conclude June 8 in Science Advances.
Much of that reduction occurred because the health responders do not issue citations or make arrests (SN: 12/18/21). But even that reduction in reported crime is beneficial, says economist Thomas Dee of Stanford University. “That person is getting health care instead of being arrested.”
Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, cities throughout the country have been rolling out programs like STAR. “We cannot police our way out of every social problem,” says Temitope Oriola, a sociologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. But so far there have been few studies of these programs’ effects on crime, let alone on the reduction of violence between police and the public (SN: 7/9/20).
Dee and Jayme Pyne, a sociologist also at Stanford, looked at the STAR program’s impact on crime reports. The duo investigated the program’s pilot phase, which ran from June to November 2020 and encompassed eight of the city’s 36 police precincts. Police officers and 911 operators in those eight precincts redirected calls for minor and non-dangerous complaints to STAR providers. These calls included concerns about trespassing, indecent exposure, intoxication and similar low-level offenses. During the six-month pilot, STAR providers responded to 748 calls, averaging roughly six incidents per eight-hour shift.
Dee and Pyne analyzed criminal offenses in all 36 precincts from December 2019 to November 2020. They then compared the change in crime rates in the eight precincts receiving STAR services with the change in crime rates in the other 28 precincts. The rate of violent crime remained unchanged across the board, including in the precincts where the STAR program was active, the researchers found. But there was a 34 percent drop in reports of minor offenses in the STAR precincts, from an average of about 84 offenses per month in each district to an average of about 56 citations.
The data also suggest that the actual level of minor crimes and complaints dropped too — that is, the drop wasn’t just due to a lack of reporting, the researchers say. Prior to the pilot, minor offenses in the eight precincts receiving STAR services resulted in an average of 1.4 citations per incident. So having health care workers rather than police respond to 748 such calls should generate roughly 1,000 fewer citations, the authors calculate. Instead, citations dropped by almost 1,400. Providing people in crisis with access to health services may be preventing them from reoffending, Dee says.
Research into these sorts of programs is crucial, says Michael Vermeer, a justice policy researcher with the RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif. But he cautions against drawing firm conclusions from a single study launched at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which dramatically changed crime rates and patterns across the country. “They just got confounded by the pandemic,” Vermeer says.
Dee agrees that he and other researchers now need to replicate this study across more cities, and also scale up in Denver. The city has since expanded the STAR program beyond the initial pilot.
Even if researchers eventually find that STAR and similar programs don’t budge crime rates much, that doesn’t mean that the programs are unsuccessful, says sociologist Brenden Beck of the University of Colorado Denver. He points to the potential to save taxpayer dollars. Dee and Pyne estimate that a single offense processed through STAR costs about $150, compared with the roughly $600 it costs to process one through the criminal justice system.
What’s more, helping people having nonviolent mental health crises get help and stay out of jail lets these individuals hold onto their jobs and stay present in their family members’ lives, Beck says. “I would hope we as a research community move on to study the benefit of these programs not just in terms of crime but also in terms of human welfare.”