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Transforming Denver's First Response Model

Lessons in Multi-level Systems Change



The police killings of unarmed Black Americans, and the ensuing protests, have reinvigorated concerns about the footprint of policing in the United States. There have been renewed calls from the public to shift various tasks away from the police.

These calls reflect a set of interrelated problems:

  • Police are called to address many social problems for which they are unsuited to address;
  • Because they are unsuited to address such problems, too often the police fail to solve the problem for which they are called to respond to in an effective or lasting way, squandering societal resources and leaving the social needs that led to the call unmet; and
  • In too many instances, police interactions (inappropriately) result in a use of force and/or arrest.

As a result of these problems, community safety is threatened rather than protected, and perceptions of police legitimacy & trust in the police rightfully suffer. These adverse effects are borne by all of society, but they fall disproportionately on communities of color and marginalized communities. Denver has been a national leader in addressing these interrelated challenges. It was well ahead of the curve in conceiving and planning significant changes prior to the protest movement that sparked reform discussions in other communities, and then, in the ensuing years, implemented and scaled multi-level system improvements. Denver’s strong start and promising experience, although still evolving and unfinished, provides important lessons for public safety professionals, elected officials, community leaders, and residents across the country.

The most prominent change undertaken in Denver is the addition of the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program. Established in 2020, the STAR program is a mobile crisis response van that pairs a Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD) clinician and a Denver Health paramedic or emergency medical technician (EMT) to respond to incoming calls-for-service related to mental and behavioral health, substance use, and homelessness instead of the police. The program has generated significant excitement from community members and government officials alike, but until now there have been many unknowns regarding this large-scale change to first response in Denver.

In this report, we present shared learnings from conversations with residents of Denver’s communities most affected by policing and other first response practices, and municipal actors from multiple agencies within the Denver government about their perceptions, ideas, and attitudes toward reducing the scope of policing, increasing the use of alternative responders to address community needs, and other ways to transform first response systems. We found it critical to incorporate both community and government in this study, as all too often each group does not hear or understand the views of the other. Through our case study of Denver, we generate an in-depth understanding of the motivations for and complexity of transforming first response more generally and explore an issue that numerous jurisdictions across the U.S. are interested in understanding.


Our objectives in this report are to:

  • Shine a light on how communities motivate and implement organizational change; and
  • Put government and community in open and transparent dialogue with one another regarding first response practices.

To accomplish our objectives, we investigate a series of research questions in this study. Given the two-pronged nature of our work (e.g., learning from community and municipal actors), the Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) research team pursued two distinct, but at times overlapping, lines of inquiry. Below we present key research questions from each team.

Research Questions:

Municipal Actors

How do municipal employees, practitioners, and organizational actors define public safety?

  • What does public safety mean?
  • How can it best be achieved?
  • Who is in charge of providing it?

How do municipal employees, practitioners, and organizational actors define public safety?

  • What motivated the change?
  • What do municipal actors believe police should be spending (and/or not spending) their time doing?

How is the first response system changing?

  • What do municipal actors believe are the goals of changing their first response model? How do stated goals align with measures of program success?
  • What is being changed (e.g.,policy, practice, mindset)?
  • What are the barriers (or lack thereof) Denver faces when implementing an alternative response program? How are front-line workers overcoming the challenges they face?

Community Members

How do community members define public safety?

  • How do community members characterize organizations’ and professionals’ roles and responsibilities for establishing public safety?
  • What do community members perceive as the most effective sources of public safety services?
  • What stage of readiness for change best characterizes community members?
  • What are community members’ perceptions of recent changes within Denver’s public safety system?
  • What first response services are unavailable, inaccessible, or unusable?
  • Where, how, and from whom do community members want to obtain first response services and support?

Note: “Community members” refers to city residents most affected by policing and other first response practices.