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In Denver, This Program Helps Reroute 911 Calls To Police Alternatives

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

If you call 911 to report somebody trespassing or shouting at people on the street, you might expect police officers to respond. In Denver, you might get a different response - a paramedic and a mental health expert. Vinnie Cervantes is the organizing director of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, and he's helped launch a program with the city in June that would divert some 911 calls away from armed officers. Mr. Cervantes, thanks so much for being with us.

VINNIE CERVANTES: Yeah. Thank you.

SIMON: What kind of calls have you answered?

CERVANTES: So the program so far has answered mostly trespassing calls that involve folks that are unhoused. We had a lot of sweeps of unhoused folks recently, so our city would go and push people out of their encampments where they're trying to survive. The STAR van and has been able to take some of those folks to shelter or to some kind of treatment. And so having that STAR van as an option has been able to support our community in a better way.

There was also an instance I know where a student had typed a sensitive word in a laptop that was given to them by the school. And that triggered a response by the district, who then called the response van to check on that student and make sure that they weren't going to commit any kind of self-harm to themselves.

SIMON: And what do your personnel do that police officers can't or don't or don't have the time to do or don't understand is necessary?

CERVANTES: Well, I think the biggest thing is that, you know, we have this tendency to look at public safety through the perspective of a threat to somebody. And I think that's how officers are largely approaching a situation. Whereas, you know, the STAR van and the model that it's inspired by, which is in Eugene, Ore., has the approach that we're looking to help somebody who's just struggling or who just needs help.

SIMON: How many calls do you think you've answered?

CERVANTES: I think it's in the range of maybe over 600 calls at this point.

SIMON: I'm told the annual call volume to the Denver Police Department about 600,000. Do you hope to increase your program eventually?

CERVANTES: Right now we're trying to plan for what a full - you know, full Denver, full city response could look like, a 24/7 response, because it's not that right now. We're hoping to be able to have the capacity to answer at least 20% of those calls.

SIMON: I wonder if any of your people are concerned that sometimes they might get called to a situation, and sometimes these calls do escalate into violence.

CERVANTES: Yeah. Well, the biggest thing is that social workers and paramedics that, you know, is currently the personnel on the van right now, are pretty used to those kind of situations that could be escalated or even could result in violence. That's always going to be a risk. But taking from the Eugene model, in their 30 years of existence, less than 1% of the time have they had to call police because the situation has escalated to need that kind of support. And in Denver so far, they haven't had to call police as backup at all. So

as the national average, police spend about 4% of their time responding to what can be considered violent crime. And so knowing that there's 96% of their time that's spent on things that are not violent, you know, we're trying to find a response for that kind of bulk of what they're currently asked to do.

SIMON: Mmm hmm. That being noted, if your program succeeds, would it put some police officers out of jobs?

CERVANTES: Having this kind of response actually frees up officers to be more focused on the more violent, the more urgent issues in the community. On the other hand, there is a risk we could lose officer jobs.

SIMON: Vinnie Cervantes is organizing director of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response. Thank you so much for being with us.

CERVANTES: Yeah. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAPELIER FOU'S "PHILEMON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.