This May, local governments across the country received the first deposit of millions of dollars from the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). By next summer, Denver will have received a total of $308 million, marking an opportunity for Denver to drastically transform its intertwining systems of safety and health.
The ARPA funding came with federal guidance that it should “foster a strong, inclusive and equitable recovery, especially uses with long term benefits for health and economic outcomes.” Already, Denver City Council has allocated $46 million (15%) of the ARPA dollars to take care of Denver’s workforce.
The Denver Task Force To Reimagine Policing and Public Safety, a team of over 40 organizations and community leaders, proposes that the city dedicate $55 million of the $308 million (18%) to invest in a subset of a strategic package of recommendations proposed in May of 2021. These investments exactly match the intended purpose of the ARPA’s aid: to promote public health, economic stability, safety and equity.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted an unmet need for better access to public health and public safety resources, especially in Black communities and low-income communities. Racial disparities in the criminal legal system compounded the disproportionate impact the pandemic had on Black people and other people of color.
People in Colorado prisons were seven times more likely to contract the virus than the general population — a horrific reality for Black people in Denver who are incarcerated at a rate six times that of white people, and for Black people across Colorado who already represented a disparate amount of COVID-19 deaths.
Over the last few years, Denver’s need for more effective public health and safety solutions has not been met.
A city council analysis of Denver’s 911 call data from 2017–2019 estimated that 15% of all calls are eligible for a response by unarmed mental-health professionals. In addition, Denver Police data revealed that heading into 2020, mental health-related calls for service increased by 17% over the three-year average. In July of 2021, of the 1,532 people in Denver’s jails, 64% had a history of mental health issues.
In this similar time frame, between June of 2020 and May of 2021, fatal shootings in Denver increased by 26 more incidents than the year before. These funds are Denver’s opportunity to invest in collaborative, community-centered solutions that get to the root of each problem.
Each investment will help Denver untangle issues of poverty and mental health from the criminal legal system and will create a paradigm shift for how Denver responds to the community’s desires for public safety reform.
The Task Force’s proposed $55 million package will lay the foundation for a new system of care using the following six investments: (1) $30 million in the creation of an Office of Neighborhood Safety that oversees all non-law enforcement public safety initiatives, including new community violence intervention programs; (2) $3 million to expand behavioral health co-responder programs and Support Team Assisted Response (STAR); (3) $3 million in community-based response teams for non-behavioral health calls for service including housing instability calls, traffic violations, and noise complaint; (4) $2 million in discharge planning services for people leaving jail incarceration; (5) $10 million to expand upon community-based treatment facilities, and (6) $5.3 million in the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM). Each of these recommendations are included in the Task Force’s 112 recommendations and push Denver to reimagine how the city delivers public safety.
It is evident that Denver’s system of care needs course-correcting, a mission that is impossible to undertake without a significant up-front investment.
If done correctly, these investments will steer Denver into a future less dependent on its costly and compromising criminal legal system. Due to the flexibility and size the ARPA funds, they mark a true once-in-a-generation opportunity to pursue these meaningful reforms.
If not now, when? Funding these six recommendations will build a new system of care and should be Denver’s priority and pathway to a safer, healthier and more equitable future.
Robert L. Davis, Ph.D., is project coordinator for Denver’s Task Force To Reimagine Policing and Public Safety.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This commentary has been updated to reflect the correct data for mental health-related calls to Denver police in 2020.)