Masked man in Dinkytown raises questions on mental health, policing

The Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, alongside Minneapolis police, hosted “crime walks” in the area last week to alert the community about Jeremiah Olson.

Flyers+passed+out+to+residents+of+the+Dinkytown+area+during+a+neighborhood+safety+walk+put+on+by+the+Minneapolis+Police+Department%2C+on+Thursday%2C+Sep.+24.

Audrey Rauth

Flyers passed out to residents of the Dinkytown area during a neighborhood safety walk put on by the Minneapolis Police Department, on Thursday, Sep. 24.

Samantha Hendrickson, City Reporter

For the last month, Marcy-Holmes residents took to social media to warn fellow students and neighbors about a man who calls himself “the Prophet” — a masked individual in a van who claims he was sent by God to end the Black Lives Matter movement.

Jeremiah Olson, a 39-year-old University of Minnesota alum, drew attention for wearing a mask around Dinkytown, leaving flyers on cars with religious and racist rhetoric, threatening people over social media, driving a van with the word “racist” spray-painted across the side, taking pictures of people inside their homes and filming his confrontations with strangers in bars or other public places.

Speculation about Olson’s mental health popped up on Facebook comments and Reddit posts alongside confusion about who should be handling the situation — mental health professionals or the police.

Last week, Hennepin County Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies (COPE) put Olson on a 72-hour mental health hold, according to MPD crime specialists. His current whereabouts are unknown. He has not made any public posts on Facebook or YouTube since Sept. 22.

As more residents encountered Olson, worry grew among the University community. Olson’s YouTube channel has several videos of aggressive confrontations with strangers, rhetoric condemning BLM as a hate group and videos of him taping young women without their consent and following them at night.

“I feel worried for the young women out here,” said Lance King, a Marcy-Holmes resident who saw Olson’s van outside his home three days in a row but was unaware of who he was. “Me being a father … it’s too much.”

Lance King, middle left, and Darcell Jackson, middle right, react to information about recent criminal activity on Thursday, Sep. 24 in Dinkytown. Second Precinct Crime Prevention Specialist Nick Juarez, left, led the neighborhood safety walk to hand out flyers outlining current activity and tips to stay safe and alert. (Audrey Rauth)

The Minneapolis Police Department had not taken any proactive steps when Olson’s posts started gaining attention because he was not technically doing anything illegal, according to MPD crime specialists. The Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, alongside the MPD, hosted two crime walks in the area last week to alert the community about Olson.

“It’s a tough deal,” said Brody Hultman, a fourth-year student at the University who often visits his friends in Dinkytown. “It’s a confusing situation, and it’s hard when people are close to the boundaries but not breaking any laws like this.”

Mental health and law enforcement in Minneapolis

COPE is a mental health emergency service that helps adults in Hennepin County if they or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis. For a person to be admitted for an involuntary 72-hour hold, they must meet a very narrow set of criteria. The hold is meant to allow mental health professionals to perform an evaluation for psychiatric distress.

Olson met those criteria, according to MPD crime specialists.

COPE was not available for an interview regarding how it works alongside law enforcement or regarding Olson’s status.

Conversations surrounding police reform have been circulating nationwide. Reform suggestions include providing police further training on mental health crises or reallocating police funds to additional social services like social workers and mental health professionals.

Second Precinct Crime Prevention Specialist Nick Juarez demonstrates how to use a handheld personal alarm system on Thursday, Sep. 24 in Dinkytown. When the pin is removed from the yellow box a high pitch noise begins to ring out in attempt to catch a perceived threat off guard. These alarm systems are available at stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Home Depot. (Audrey Rauth)

In Minneapolis, most MPD officers take crisis intervention training, which is meant to provide a basic understanding of mental health crises and how to handle them following a 911 call.

“We’ve gone from being just a small unit … now we’re at the point where our whole department is certified,” MPD Officer Adam Chard said.

In some precincts, social workers and mental health professionals are available to accompany police officers if they believe they are dealing with an “emotionally disturbed person,” said MPD Crime Prevention Specialist Abdirashid Ali. “Honestly, I would say it’s been very successful.”

The program, however, was halted for COVID-19 safety, according to Ali.

The community responds

While nearby resident Hultman expressed his concern about the lack of legal action police can take, he also said he would rather keep mental health programs and police separate.

“I’d like to see more investment strictly in mental health professionals,” he said.

Eva Slattery, a teaching assistant and Marcy-Holmes resident, said that while Olson’s presence makes her nervous, it does not necessarily change the way she approaches her personal safety, no matter what the police are doing.

“[Being a woman] makes me an easier target,” Slattery said.

Slattery also said she has many concerns about mental health training for police, being a person with autism herself.

“I think having mental health responders alongside police officers is the best way to do it,” Slattery said. “As an autistic person … if someone grabbed me during a meltdown, I might explode, but [mental health outbursts] can be hard to identify.”

Slattery’s roommate, Lucinda Carter, said that if Slattery encountered a police officer during an outburst, she would be more worried about Slattery than the officer. For that reason, Carter said having a mental health professional to evaluate the situation would be better for all involved.

In early September, a Salt Lake City police officer shot a 13-year-old boy with autism while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. His mother had called police to request a crisis intervention team to help transport him to a hospital for care.

Carter emphasized that it is not just police officers that need to change but law enforcement’s approach to mental health as a whole.

“There needs to be a buffer between being aggressive and forceful,” Carter said. “The amount of people who are incarcerated right now who really just need a doctor, just need support but instead are just in jail because of their reaction to something … it’s not just that it wasn’t okay, it’s that they didn’t get the support they need.”