By: Joshua M. Diaz-Bend
February 27th, 2021 – Another U.S. city is reporting early success with a program that replaces traditional law enforcement responders with health care workers for some emergency calls. Previously, Denver 911 operators only directed calls to police or fire department first responders. But the Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) pilot program created a third track for directing emergency calls to a two-person team: a medic and a clinician, staffed in a van from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.
The STAR program, which launched in June, reported promising results in its six-month progress report. The program aims to provide a “person-centric mobile crisis response” to community members who are experiencing problems related to mental health, depression, poverty, homelessness, or substance abuse issues.
This was done in a time when police are being left unchecked to brutally murder mentally-ill people with impunity. There were two similar incidents in Spring of 2020, just outside a suburb of Philadelphia, Penna., that luckily did not end in a murder. Kimberly Stringer, 28; and Dudly Ulysse, 24, were arrested between April and June of 2020 for charges relating to their mental health diagnosis.
Dudly Ulysse was transported to Lower Bucks Hospital for a 72-hour Mental Health Hold known as a “302 Warrant” after a section in “Pennsylvania’s Title 50 – Mental Health Statues“.
See link to definition: (50 P. S. § 7302 of Penna. Mental Health Statues).
The cause of him being committed was a result of him having an episode on his front lawn, which he cannot recall.
While awaiting a bed at the emergency room, Mr. Ulysse was becoming more agitated and allegedly started destroying hospital equipment and apparently assaulted hospital security which prompted hospital staff to call Bristol Township Police, and Mr. Ulysse was charged with criminal mischief and aggravated assault among other related charges and sent to the prison to await trial on these charges, which sparked calls for Mental Health Reform outside Lower Bucks Hospital.
Kimberly Stringer was arrested for a similar incident in April 2020, in which she allegedly stopped taking her medication which was apparently court-ordered. Falls Township Police were called for a Domestic Disturbance between Ms. Stringer and a neighbor, in which she allegedly assaulted and threatened the neighbor.
“She went in unwell, she came out much, much worse.”– Martha Stringer, mother of Kimberly Stringer
In June 2020, she was finally transferred to Norristown State Hospital’s – Building #51 Forensics Unit in Montgomery County, Penna. and as of this printing, her mother Martha Stringer spoke to me via Facebook that she is in the civil unit and slowly responding to treatment after the trauma she endured at the hands of Correctional Staff.
Apparently during her two-month stay at the Bucks Count Correctional Facility in Doylestown, Penna. , a few of her jail mates witnessed officers using excessive force on Ms. Stringer while she was on Suicide Watch on the women’s wing. She posed no threat to the staff and corrections officers when they entered her cell and used OC-17 spray on her, and not permitting her to shower even though her cell was in deplorable conditions with fecal and urine in the vicinity of her bed/mattress.
Bucks County District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub said that even though what he seen in jail footage was inexcusable, their actions were justified due to improper training techniques to handle mentally ill inmates.
“The guards did not act criminally”, he said to Levittown Now‘s Tom Sofield. There was also a cover up attempted by Correctional Mental Health Services staff and CMHS director Dr. Abbey Cassidy by denying officers had resorted to pepper spray to subdue Ms. Stringer, contradicting Bucks County Commissioner Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia statement to her parents that she was indeed hit with the high intensity OC-17 spray. Weintraub said the incidents were recorded on video and were “very difficult to watch”.
While disturbing, the district attorney said the correction officers followed the correctional department policy that is printed in a manual. Stringer was examined after the incidents and found not to be injured.
In October 2020 , Commissioners Chairman Ms. Ellis-Marseglia announced the development of a Mental Health Center near the correctional facility in Doylestown Township, Penna. to alleviate the overcrowded prison population especially of those with underlying mental health issues. The newly announced facility is projected to hold four-to-six mentally ill inmates, which will not solve the issue with inmates currently awaiting a bed at Norristown State Hospital’s Regional Psychiatric Forensic Center in Montgomery County. They also announced that the facility will be complete in March-April of 2021.
The Bucks County Correctional Facility currently has 8-bed single bunk cells in their Mental Health Unit for male inmates and 6-beds (two bunks in 2 cells, and two single bed cells) for females in the F-R/M unit at the county jail. The female unit also utilizes the module for inmates serving disciplinary sanctions, medical watch, and other special directive statuses. This has caused an overflow of special directive status inmates to be housed on the main female Foxtrot unit. As a result of this spillover, Bucks County has contracted with and sent their female inmates to the Kintock Facility in Philadelphia in an attempt to lower the female population. Another approach was converting their multi-purpose gymnasium into a dormitory style module which has caused issues due to lack of privacy and hygienic issues pertaining to COVID-19 guidelines.
As of 2018, the RPFC center which currently has 187 beds which serves around nineteen (19) counties in Pennsylvania, only has about five to eight beds for Bucks County inmates. Most inmates spend approximately 90-180 days in the RPFC building until they a psychologist deems them competent to proceed for trial or they request an extension pursuant to 50 P.S. Mental Health § 7403 until inmate is deemed competent to stand trial. There has been reports in the past fifteen years of inmates waiting anywhere from 9-12 months for a bed at RPFC, and as of last summer, that wait time was cut down to 3-6 months.
It saddens me to see that in order for reform to happen that it has to be in an “ends justify the means” scenario such as death or trauma happening before any reform happens on a county, state or federal level. Myself, being an individual with mental health issues who has seen the inside of penal facilities witnessed the torment these people endure from staff and corrections officers, it is only the tip of the iceberg in a sea full of corruption that occurs on a daily basis at the Bucks County Correctional Facility.
But back to the topic on hand, Denver is among several U.S. cities working to develop an alternative emergency responder model for people who are experiencing mental health crises, as police officers fatally shoot hundreds of people experiencing mental health crises every year, according to a Washington Post database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers. Since 2015, police have fatally shot nearly 1,400 people with mental illnesses, according to the database.
Over the first six months of the pilot, Denver received more than 2,500 emergency calls that fell into the STAR program’s purview, and the STAR team was able to respond to 748 calls. No calls required the assistance of police, and no one was arrested.
Denver police responded to nearly 95,000 incidents over the same period, suggesting that an expanded STAR program could reduce police calls by nearly 3%, according to the report.
“Overall, the first six months has kind of been a proof of concept of what we wanted,” said Vinnie Cervantes, a member of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, one of the organizations involved with the STAR program. “We’ve continued to try to work to make it something that is truly a community-city partnership.”
Data collected during the pilot program found that STAR calls were focused in certain areas of the city, and most were calls for trespassing and welfare checks. Approximately 68% of people contacted were experiencing homelessness, and there were mental health concerns in 61% of cases – largely schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder – with 33% of people having co-occurring conditions, according to the report.
Carleigh Sailon, a social worker with the Mental Health Center of Denver who works out of the STAR van, said she takes a “non-judgmental, client-centered, supportive” approach to assisting people in crisis.
“The intent of STAR is to send the right response, not a one-size fit all response. People call 911 for an array of reasons and it’s not always something that involves risk or a criminal element,” Sailon said in a statement. “If the STAR van can handle someone in crisis and that frees up police to handle a robbery or domestic violence call, then that’s an incredible success.”.
The report comes on the heels of a year that saw thousands of protests nationwide in response to the killings of several Black men and women, as well as a series of high-profile police killings of people experiencing mental health crises, including Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, and Walter Wallace, Jr. in Philadelphia. Many protesters called on their local governments to redirect funding away from police departments.
During the protests in Philadelphia, protesters are seen with National Guard soldiers which was deployed to maintain order for up to two weeks after the looting. In neighboring Bucks County, their county prison went on lockdown out of fear of inmate reprisal against correctional staff.
The protests were largely peaceful, though police clashed with protesters at some points. In one instance, police used tear gas to disperse a group trying to block a major roadway. One officer faces aggravated assault charges stemming from a video that shows him striking a student protester in the head with a metal baton. Some people used the protests as an opportunity to incite violence and looting.
In recent years, some police departments, such as in Los Angeles and San Antonio, have partnered with mental health professionals to work as “co-responders,” assisting street cops responding to incidents involving a mental health crisis. In the wake of Breonna Taylor’s killing in Louisville last year, the city increased its police budget and put money toward exploring co-responder models. And Chicago is expected to begin piloting a co-responder program this year.
But other cities rely on emergency response models that do not involve police. The Denver program is modeled after the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon. White Bird Clinic, a health care center in the city, launched the program as a community policing initiative in 1989.
Like the Denver program, CAHOOTS responds to a range of mental health-related crises and relies on techniques that are focused on harm reduction. With a budget of about $2.1 million annually, CAHOOTS answered 17% of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume in 2017, according to the program.
Some excerpts from USA Today titled “Denver successfully sent mental health professionals, not police, to hundreds of calls“.