Lawmakers, police review approaches to mentally ill people

by Tom Ford

The recent police shooting of a mentally ill Minneapolis man has sparked a wide re-appraisal of how the state cares for and responds to mentally ill people.

“When you call the police for health care, it’s a glaring failure of the mental health system,” said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville.

On March 10, police spotted Abu Jeilani, a 28-year-old Somali man, walking with a machete and crowbar near Chicago and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis.

After trying unsuccessfully to make him drop the weapons, six officers shot and killed Jeilani, who was mentally ill.

The first evidence of the statewide re-evaluation of mental health services has surfaced at the Capitol.

Authored by Greiling, a bill allowing for the earlier dispatch of peace officers specially trained to intervene in mental health crises is now before the House.

The bill, which passed the Senate on March 14, would permit police officers or county crisis teams to detain and transport the mentally ill to a doctor or hospital before they present an imminent threat to themselves or others.

The current state statute allows this response only if the danger is immediate.

While encouraging improvement in responses to mental health crises, Greiling said many people could and should be helped before threats exist.

The pending legislation would also require the state to study mental health system inadequacies and report the findings by early next year.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said the county is examining where gaps exist in care for people with mental illness.

Dorfman said the county provides numerous services, such as crisis units at hospitals and response teams composed of nurses who can be sent alone or with police to treat mentally ill people.

But she said many people are confused about how to access those services, and minority communities in particular don’t trust the system.

“People get worried that if they show up at a crisis intervention center they will be committed against their will,” she said.

Educating people about their rights in the system and providing more interpreters are critical steps to allaying fears and improving access, Dorfman said.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said the community failed Jeilani before police spotted him.

“At the moment a man arrived at the corner of Chicago and Franklin with a machete and crowbar, we had lost 80 percent of the battle,” Rybak said.

But despite a lack of previous care, Rybak said, the shooting was a tragedy, and the city must never allow such an incident to occur again.

In the last few weeks, members of the Friends of Barbara Schneider Foundation – named for a woman Minneapolis police shot to death in 2000 – proposed several changes to how police respond to mentally ill people.

On Monday, the group’s president, Jeannie Bowers-Stead, outlined those recommendations.

Primarily, she said, the city should create a non-police response unit of mental health professionals to be sent to crises.

Greg Hestness, deputy police chief, said it’s a good goal to keep officers out of mental illness situations, but that solution creates risks.

Hestness said non-police crisis teams wouldn’t have the training to intervene in dangerous situations or be able to respond as quickly as patrol officers.

He said police have begun training officers to deal with mental health crises during the past couple of years.

After three mentally ill people were killed by police in 1999 and 2000, the department formed a crisis intervention team last summer. Patrol officers, who volunteer for the program, receive training in how to identify and respond to mental health crises.

“I see the CIT training as one of the most positive steps we’ve taken,” Hestness said.

Already, 77 officers have received the 40-hour CIT training, he said. Another session in April will instruct 25 more officers, nearing the department’s goal of training 20 percent of the police force.

When police first spotted Jeilani, two CIT officers were brought to the scene.

“I was very pleased with the alertness of initial responders,” he said. “But obviously we didn’t get the outcome that any of us wanted.”

Hestness said that while the department will fully review this situation, it appears those officers followed proper procedures.

He said the department wants to expand the CIT training by continuing education for CIT officers beyond initial instruction and employing such training at the police academy.