MPD aims to better respond to mental health crises

500 MPD officers will be trained for mental health crisis response.

Ryan Faircloth

Amid calls for accountability, Minneapolis officials have decided to train police officers in handling mental health calls. 

The Minneapolis City Council approved a contract Friday with the Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team Officer’s Association to train 500 Minneapolis officers in mental health crises between 2016 and 2017.

The training aims to give police the know-how to help those struggling with mental illnesses so they can de-escalate situations, said MN CIT Officer’s Association Executive Director Michael Peterson.

The CIT training pairs mental health professionals and cops with community advocates and those struggling with mental illness to figure out the best responses to mental health calls, Peterson said.

While the Minneapolis Police Department has had officers take the training before, the new step is the most extensive mental health effort so far, said Troy Schoenberger, commander of MPD’s 

Leadership and Organizational Development Division. 

Schoenberger said in the past roughly 15 percent of the MPD had crisis training, but the new contract would train all patrol officers. Schoenberger said about 60 percent of the department was trained in a spring session course, and the rest will be trained this fall.

Peterson said the new training is 40 hours long, with 30 hours of classroom training and 10 hours of role-playing.

“We bring in professional actors to play the person who’s struggling with the crisis and then have the officers practice those de-escalation skills with the role-players,” Peterson said. 

Surveys filled by officers who completed the spring course showed they found the class mostly helpful, Schoenberger said.

Laura Westphal, a commissioner on Minneapolis’ Police Conduct Oversight Commission, said she went to an April CIT training course but thought some aspects were lacking.

“I think that it could be done better if it … had some more principals of adult learning involved in it,” she said.

Westphal said she thinks a joint responder program with mental health professionals working alongside police would best handle the mental health crises.

She said the idea would complement CIT training, which she sees as only a “first step” to the crisis problems.

“The whole idea is immediate … de-escalation,” Westphal said, adding a joint responder program would focus on talking people down instead of using force or yelling.

“That social worker decides where the person’s going to go, and it’s not jail,” she said. “The whole idea is to divert these people completely out of the criminal justice system because they’re not criminals.”

Westphal said a joint responder program would require collaboration and increased effort, but possible results are worth it.

 “It’s a … giant project, but everywhere that it’s been in place, it’s got immediately great results,” she said. 

Still, Schoenberger said current CIT training will help callers get treatment they need and eventually cut the number of calls overall. He said MPD also wants to start CIT refresher courses as early as 2018.

The one-day refresher course would likely be held quarterly every other year, Schoenberger said.