Less than two months after Roseville police shot and killed a man experiencing a "mental outburst," his family came to the State Capitol to urge better training for officers responding to mental health calls.
On Tuesday, Cole Birkeland held up a large framed picture of his uncle, John Birkeland, to legislators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, arguing that his uncle's death could have been prevented.
"In John's story, there could have been a better precaution taken," he said.
The Senate committee unanimously moved forward a bill requiring all law enforcement officers in Minnesota to receive four hours of mental health training. Some departments have already instituted more comprehensive training on their own, but this bill would be the first mandate of its kind.
The legislation has gained momentum in the wake of several police shootings of people experiencing mental health crises, including Birkeland, who was 52 when he died last month.
Roseville police had responded to John Birkeland before, and his apartment building had told neighbors to call police when he had another "mental outburst." When police were called for a noise complaint Feb. 10, five officers responded with a dog.
Officers sent in the dog after they found Birkeland hiding in a closet. Police say he stabbed the dog with a kitchen knife, and then police shot him dead. The dog was treated for noncritical injuries and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is still investigating the shooting.
The training requirement, which would go into effect July 1, 2017, would direct all 10,500 licensed officers in Minnesota to complete four hours of mental health training every three years. It could be done online and draws components from the more rigorous crisis intervention training program, which teaches police about mental illnesses and how to de-escalate confrontations.
"We've fallen way behind in terms of mental health," said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, the bill's author. "This is a piece of the puzzle."
More Minnesota law enforcement agencies, including Roseville, are sending officers through 40-hour crisis intervention training programs, deemed the gold standard for the training. But efforts to require such training have previously run into opposition over its cost and time commitment, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota chapter.
This time, no one testified against Tuesday's bill, but the training requirement was also significantly scaled back, she said.
"It's a compromise," Abderholden said. "I'd rather get some movement than not."
A second bill, introduced in the House in early March, would train Minneapolis and St. Paul officers every six months in crisis de-escalation techniques.
The state Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training supports the training, executive director Nathan Gove said, but added that officers across the state are already getting the training on their own and that no training is going to eliminate completely the need to use deadly force.
In Roseville, 10 officers have taken a weeklong crisis intervention training program, including one of the officers who was the first to respond to Birkeland's incident, Roseville Police Chief Rick Mathwig said Wednesday. Like other cities, the suburb has seen a huge uptick in mental health-related calls, with health-related calls — the bulk involving mental health issues — increasing 20 percent since 2011.
Crisis intervention training is a shift in how law enforcement responds to situations, going from a take-control approach to an effort to calm someone down, especially when they're agitated or having mental health issues, said Vance Stuehrenberg, a retired Mankato police officer and Blue Earth County commissioner who also testified Tuesday in support of the bill.
Cole Birkeland and his family first heard about de-escalation training after John's death and immediately questioned if it could have made a difference in his case.
His uncle, who he described as thoughtful, generous and caring, was also passionate about making a difference for others, especially making life better for those with disabilities. Now, he said, it's time for the family to make a difference for him.
"It happens too often," Cole Birkeland said of police shootings. "That means something needs to be done."
Staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.