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Uncle Sam: Defunding the police – what Athens can learn from Denver

The ambition of most intellectual movements is to deconstruct some unjust, antiquated system. Today, the Defund the Police Movement demands the deconstruction of the police state. While deconstruction of unjust systems is a common denominator across many movements, the reconstruction of sustainable alternatives should be equally as common. When movements fail to suggest adequate alternatives, opponents (in this case, Blue Lives Matter) are more empowered to make ill-founded arguments to distract from the necessity of achieving a goal.

Undermining the police state is certainly a noble goal: the American Civil Liberties Union is one of many voices that explains that less policing would save our cities money that could be invested in more social initiatives, would dismantle much of systemic racism’s hold over American society and would not make us less safe. All the same, rather than supporting the deconstruction of the police state (which many authors have already done successfully), this column aims to support the reconstruction of something more equitable in its place.

Once again, there are many ideas about alternatives to police circulating. One important piece of these alternatives is the deployment of mental health professionals. Even with the case of mental health professionals, however, opponents like to claim that such a solution is not practical and not as safe as a regular police response. Such views are unfounded – or they are founded in fear.

Indeed, one of the most resounding, real-world contradictions to these defeatist views is the case of Denver. Since its birth in June, Denver’s Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program has sent unarmed mental health professionals – and not police officers – to respond to over 350 emergency calls. And the team has not needed police back-up once. In other words: STAR has been a great success and offers a tangible example of how cities can reconstruct their first-response practices beyond solely relying on police.

STAR expands on Denver’s co-responder program, which, since 2016, has sent mental health professionals with police officers to respond to calls in which mental illness likely plays a role. The ability for dispatchers to select STAR (only a mental health professional), the co-responder program (a mental health professional and an officer), or a normal officer team allows for more appropriate responses to emergency calls. It also means police officers are more available to and focused on responding to actual violent crimes. 

STAR has responded to a wide variety of calls, including “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,” according to The Denver Post. “The goal is to connect people who pose no danger with services and resources while freeing up police to respond to other calls.”

Furthermore, STAR is affordable: Denver secured $208,141 in foundation money to launch the pilot program (which it now seeks to make permanent). That figure is essentially a drop in the bucket compared to the $588 million budget for Denver’s Department of Safety.

So, in other words, STAR (or something like it) is something that all cities should be considering – especially Athens. With a long history of exploitation of and disinvestment, Appalachia has a higher rate of mental illnesses (especially depression). It is therefore intuitive that mental health professionals would be more qualified to respond to many Athens emergency calls than police would be. Indeed, considering the sorts of calls to which STAR has responded in Denver, it is not hard to imagine the use for mental health responders here in Athens.

Consequently, fewer people with mental illness would end up in jails and prisons, which have in many ways become today’s asylums. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “in a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. As a result, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition. This might not be the case if mental health professionals first responded to these individuals instead of police officers.

With all this in mind, why wouldn’t Athens adopt a program similar to STAR? In a column earlier this month, The Post Opinion Editor Noah Wright pointed out that most Athens Police Department calls do not merit any sort of violent response – not even the threat of it. Indeed, of its top 10 most common calls from 2019, many could arguably be better addressed by a mental health professional or mediator. Noise complaints (711 calls), traffic accidents (594 calls) suspicious persons (317 calls), some theft calls (811 calls), certain drunk calls (381 calls) and a good portion of “officer initiated” interventions (521 calls)... All would be excellent candidates for response by officers paired with mental health professionals or by mental health professionals alone.

Such a program would not be difficult to launch: if the City of Athens couldn’t hire its own team of mental health professionals immediately, it could contract with one of the many behavioral health providers in the region. (Still, it should consider having its own team in the future, much as there are publicly employed policemen, firefighters and paramedics today). The City could train dispatchers to know when to send an officer (for violent crimes only) or a mental health professional to respond to an emergency call. Finally, if it could not find an outside funder like Denver did, it would only take shifting a small amount of money from the City’s $4.4 million police budget to launch the program.

After protests erupted over the murder of George Floyd in Denver, it took Denver only four days to announce the STAR program. The program itself is not abstruse; rather, the largest obstacle to its implementation elsewhere is the lack of ideological imagination that leads us to believe that police are the only option we have. 

As mentioned earlier, mental health professionals are only a piece of the puzzle: cities must still consider disarming police, eroding bloated policing budgets, increasing training requirements, investing more in social welfare and completing a whole host of other structural evolutions. Take it from Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen: “It’s the future of law enforcement, taking a public health view on public safety.”

Sam Smith is a rising senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.

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