In our combined experience working with communities across the United States to transform policing, one thing is abundantly clear, especially in Denver: Community members are in the best position to provide solutions to their public safety needs. The Denver community has spoken, and local government leaders should implement the recommendations recently released by the community-led Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety.
The task force, a coalition of 43 community organizations and government agencies from all parts of the Denver community, presented a comprehensive plan for public safety that prioritizes community healing and well-being. While it is commendable that the Denver City Council has taken on the serious work of addressing those recommendations directed toward the council, that is just the first step.
Mayor Hancock’s administration has the power to enact the great majority of the recommendations, and we, along with these community organizations, want to see the mayor and the public safety director coordinate with the City Council and the task force to ensure full implementation of the recommendations.
Denver is on the cusp of achieving something special. The task force, for starters, is a model for building a change process that is representative of the community, even without government support.
As outside advisors to the group since its early days, the Vera Institute of Justice and the Center for Policing Equity respectively have watched this group develop a holistic set of approaches based on extensive research on what works both locally and across the country. And although the Department of Public Safety unfortunately removed itself from the process, these recommendations are now uniquely centered on the feedback from the community organizations and government agencies.
They are rooted in a transformative vision of public safety as a means to prevent, reduce, and heal harm. The task force calls for a fundamentally different approach: invest resources into communities to prevent and treat harm, and limit the use of police and punishment practices. Approaching public safety through a public health lens reduces harm and provides more appropriate assistance in an overwhelming majority of circumstances.
For example, recommendation #26 calls for expanding the Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR, unit – a van with a trained mental health counselor and a paramedic. For a year, STAR has been successfully responding to 911 calls about mental health and substance use incidents that were previously routed to police.
The Denver City Council, working with analysts inside the Denver Police Department, examined calls for service and discovered that STAR could handle as many as 15 percent of all Denver 911 calls if sufficiently resourced. Denver is currently expanding STAR and it should be scaled up further and implemented centering community partners’ perspectives.
Expansion could reduce unnecessary police and jail expenses while providing more effective aid to those in crisis. Last month’s City Council vote to expand the budget of STAR is a good step, but it is only the beginning of what is necessary.
The task force calls for expanding community-based emergency response to other calls that STAR does not handle (recommendation #36), training 911 dispatchers to divert appropriate calls to these non-police responses (#24), and ensuring that police and 911 dispatchers are properly trained in non-enforcement crisis intervention techniques (#51).
Local gun violence also is addressed: The task force calls for the creation and expansion of violence prevention and interruption programs (recommendation #10). These programs often rely on community members who have prior involvement in the criminal legal system, and they can serve as credible messengers and violence interrupters, as seen with success elsewhere.
Finally, the task force also calls for Denver to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to address all forms of violence (recommendation #52) – including programming to support officers who have witnessed or intervened in violence (#76). These recommendations provide a framework for healing and accountability.
Denver has something that few other American cities currently have: the opportunity to transform local policing into comprehensive public safety based on the recommendations of an inclusive, community-led group. Now is the time for Mayor Hancock to work with the City Council to embrace the changes envisioned by those who are impacted the most: the Denver community.
Dr. Tracie Keesee, of Elbert County, is co-founder and senior vice president of social justice initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity, in New Haven, Conn.
Daniela Gilbert is director of Redefining Public Safety at the Vera Institute of Justice in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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