In his first nine months, the Golden Valley Police Department's community health officer has taken on more than 140 cases, working to connect those with mental health or chemical dependency issues with help.
"I do think we could have used this position a couple of years ago," said detective Lance Evans, who took the role when it was created in January. "It's really needed."
While not a health care or mental health professional, Evans can be a consistent contact for people who are struggling or their families. He often checks in with people via text, over coffee or through home visits. Checking in can mean ensuring those people have their medications, a ride to a counseling appointment or a referral to another organization.
"There are a lot of programs and services for people who need help," said Police Chief Jason Sturgis. "[Police] tend to be a common denominator, but we are short-term problem-solvers. We knew folks could use a different approach."
Each officer on the force is trained in crisis response, but Evans is called in after the initial police call, creating what could be a long-term relationship between the person and the Police Department.
Evans' role has already led to a decrease in repeat calls from some people, who now know they can reach out to him rather than repeatedly dial 911.
"When you are working the street, you do deal with these issues but you don't see what happens after you leave," said Evans, who has been with Golden Valley police for 25 years. "It's been really fulfilling to see these people get medication, counseling and treatment."
The community health officer position also means planning wellness programs, both emotional and physical, for the city's police officers. Evans hopes to break the stigma that might stop an officer from seeking counseling or emotional support.
"For a long time, agencies haven't done well with that internal officer wellness piece," Sturgis said. "We know we have a long ways to go on that, but it's a goal."
The Police Department has recently begun using the Vitals app, allowing people with disabilities or medical issues to create a digital profile to share with first responders. That profile can include details about de-escalation techniques that could head off a violent confrontation.
While many police departments in the metro area have adopted their own ways to better respond to and assist those with mental health issues, Sturgis said that in Golden Valley, the goal is to provide more follow-up after a police encounter.
"That's the missing link — that long-term piece," Sturgis said. "We don't yet know exactly where this position is going to lead us. But we've laid good groundwork we'll continue to grow on."