Minnesota police looking into new approach to mental health calls

Community members are pushing for a new way to respond to mental health-related calls to improve safety and cut costs.

by Hannah Weikel

Police departments nationwide are adopting programs to ensure a mental health specialist accompanies law enforcement officers to respond to calls from citizens with mental illnesses.

Though several residents have contacted Minneapolis City Council members over concerns that police aren’t equipped to react to calls from the mentally ill, Minneapolis and St. Paul Police Departments don’t plan to implement additional training or programs until the departments can conduct further research.

Ward 2 City Councilman Cam Gordon said a group of community members approached him two weeks ago about creating a mental health specialist ride-along program at MPD.

Kathy Czech is leading residents’ effort to start a co-responder program in the city, a cause she took up after hearing that a friend’s family member with mental health issues had a poor interaction with police.

Currently, cities like Portland, Ore., and Duluth, Minn., employ mental health practitioners to accompany responding police officers.

The Duluth Police Department implemented the model last summer, Lieutenant Chad Nagorski said.

A social worker responds to calls related to mental health with an officer and can stay with a caller for several hours. They are able to get them whatever help they may need, he said.

Though ride-along services won’t be offered in the Twin Cities until both police departments can research its benefits and downfalls, some officers receive crisis intervention team training, learning how to handle citizens dealing with a mental health crisis, MPD Public Information Officer John Elder said.

The program, which Elder said was implemented in the city two years ago, includes 40 hours of crisis situation role play and learning how to de-escalate mental health-related interactions. Still, less than half of Minneapolis officers have received the training, he said.

A quarter of St. Paul Police Department officers have been trained under the model, Sergeant Mike Ernster said.

If a caller is assumed to be mentally ill, SPPD tries to dispatch a certified officer. Sometimes, none are available, and an officer is sent as soon as possible, Ernster said.

Though Czech said she thinks the training helps increase awareness of mental illness among law enforcement officials, she thinks more should be done.

“The problem is you don’t take a master’s-level social worker, give them 40 hours of training and expect them to do the job of a police officer,” she said. “The police are good at going in and taking charge of a situation.”

Crisis intervention team training has been beneficial for Duluth police, Nagorski said, but the co-responder model provides mental health callers with the services they weren’t getting but needed.

“We had some good lines of communication with human services, but it needed improvement,” Nagorski said. “We have had to cite people and not get down to the core issue because our officers don’t have enough time to deal with that.”

He said the number of mental health calls has noticeably risen since he joined the force in 1999. Co-responders have helped keep on top of the increase.

Elder said he hasn’t noticed an increased number of calls in Minneapolis, though MPD is working on certifying all 825 officers in the next couple of years.

He said the department is open to implementing new measures such as the co-responder model.

Minneapolis leaders are still in the early stages of researching how a ride-along program would be implemented in the city, Gordon said, but he has encouraged interested residents and groups to bring the issue to City Council sometime next year.