For some law enforcement professionals, the need to educate officers on how to respond to those in mental health crisis comes from a deep and personal place.
So it is with Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie, who has made it his mission to build a state-of-the-art facility that can provide such training not only to officers but to firefighters, paramedics, 911 dispatchers and others who can become key figures in defusing tense encounters that too often go wrong.
When it breaks ground in Inver Grove Heights next spring, the Safety and Mental Health Alternative Response, or SMART, Center will be a regional hub for intensive training in de-escalation and other techniques used to handle mental health situations. It will provide a much-needed home for the Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team, a nonprofit that works with first responders across the state.
Instead of calling a pickup truck their home and using storage lockers to stage training scenarios, team members will have permanent rooms mimicking real-world conditions that might be encountered, from a dimly lit alley to the chaotic living-room scene of a domestic call in progress. Exercises will be videotaped and reviewed, to determine whether different, better choices could have been made or tactics used.
“It’s going to make a huge difference for them and the officers and first responders,” Leslie said. “We all need to have a much better understanding of how to approach a person suffering mental health illness and how to get them through their crisis.”
How great is the need? According to a 2016 state Department of Human Services report, 226,000 Minnesotans struggled with serious mental illness. More than a third of Minnesota jail inmates have a mental health diagnosis. When someone in the throes of a mental health crisis encounters untrained police, the results can be disastrous.
“We think many of the tragedies we’ve seen can be avoided,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness and a supporter of the SMART Center. “This is a new approach that we think will help first responders and increase the safety of both officers.”
Leslie is candid about where his drive on this issue comes from. His father, after serving in the Korean War, came back “a different man,” Leslie said, suffering from what now might likely be considered severe post-traumatic stress disorder. His condition continued to deteriorate. Eventually he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized. “He was in and out of my life a lot,” Leslie said. “He was not a bad person. You just had to find a place where you could communicate with him. ... It made me sensitive to this.”
Leslie is convinced that with the proper training, 911 dispatchers can pick up on the cues that indicate a mental health crisis, giving officers a valuable heads up. So can EMTs and other first responders, who can help calm a tense situation. So far, Leslie said, about half of Minnesota officers have gotten at least eight hours of training. About a third have undergone 40 hours, considered “the gold standard.”
Officers are hungry to get the help they know they need, Leslie said. “Without it, you’re left with human-being reactions to perceived threats. It doesn’t have to be that way.”