The next step in crisis intervention and de-escalation training for police officers could be a one-day course developed by a psychologist and a sociologist from Minnesota.

Both of them, criminal justice professors in the Twin Cities, say a problem of modern policing is that officers increasingly are the first point of contact for people suffering from mental health crises.

“Right now, the people treating mental illness in this country are police officers,” said Jillian Peterson, a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. “Police officers are on the front lines of a lot of problems, and when something goes wrong, it’s big news.”

So Peterson and James Densley of Metropolitan State University are developing a single-day, in-house course to train officers how to respond to mental-health calls and tailored to each department.

Peterson bills it as an alternative to crisis intervention team (CIT) training, a weeklong program long considered the gold standard for de-escalation education.

The Minnetonka Police Department signed on this summer to pilot the new program in early 2018.

“Any call we go on can have some component of mental illness,” said community engagement officer Scott Marks. “Really, a lot of our calls are mediating-type calls where we’re coming in and mediating situations.”

The number of calls to police involving mental-health crises continues to rise across the state, sometimes ending in devastating outcomes. They touch on problems from depression to psychotic episodes and may involve schizophrenic patients or parents dealing with aggressive children.

Such calls to Minnetonka police jumped from 120 in 2005 to 292 last year, a number that includes suicide threats and attempts, according to data. The city is on track to get 377 such calls this year, Marks said.

In June, Gov. Mark Dayton signed legislation mandating that all officers in the state undergo training in three areas, including mental-health crises and conflict de-escalation. It comes with $6 million annually for training over four years starting in 2018.

With the influx in money comes new training opportunities, experts say. CIT training, also known as the “Memphis model,” could see competition from programs like the one that Peterson and Densley are developing.

“We could be creating the Minnetonka model here,” Peterson said. “This could be something that, if it works, could be really revolutionary for how we approach this problem.”

Faster, cheaper, easier

When Peterson took the CIT course last summer, she said she found parts of it dated and its length and cost prohibitive for many police departments. The 40-hour course, offered by the Minnesota CIT Officers Association, can cost up to $800 per officer.

“You have to take someone off the street for 40 hours,” Peterson said. “For some agencies that have five people, that’s impossible.”

She and Densley came up with a proposal: What if they could create a one-day course that boiled down de-escalation training to its essentials, giving officers the knowledge to recognize and mitigate a crisis on the scene?

“People are interested in developing something that’s faster and cheaper and easier,” Peterson said. “If we can show it’s effective, that’s going to be the big thing.”

It might be impossible, she acknowledged. But with the support of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Minnetonka’s decision to pilot the program, they have the opportunity to find out.

The professors plan to collect anonymous data on Minnetonka’s 56 police officers, such as background information, demographics, personal experience with mental illness and other details. Then they hope to test the program in Minnetonka in February and follow up with officers throughout the year to see if their behavior has changed.

If successful, the course could be shared and adapted to other criminal justice workers, including probation and corrections officers, Peterson said.

She said they are meeting with experts in de-escalation techniques and researching other forms of crisis response in Minnesota. Duluth, for instance, has a social worker embedded in its police department. NAMI has crisis response teams across the state available around the clock by phone.

Minnesota CIT also offers a simplified one-day course. Steven Wickelgren, clinical director for the group, said he’s curious to see what Peterson and Densley develop.

“We’re not about proprietary issues,” Wickelgren said. “We’re mostly concerned with officers … [and] community members staying safe. However that happens, we’re for it.”

Marks, who went through the Minnesota CIT course and continues to assist as a coach, said there will be a need for shorter programs. “It’s possible that they can develop a good product that’s not competing with CIT,” he said. “They complement each other.”

Following up with callers

The pilot program isn’t the only initiative Minnetonka police are taking to improve response to crisis calls.

Marks and a Maple Grove officer came up with the idea of an “aftercare” program in which officers would follow up with repeat callers with mental health issues and point them to other resources they can try first. Marks said he hopes it will lead to police checking fewer callers into hospitals or, worse, taking them into custody.

Officers already call on victims of assault and other crimes, he said. Why not people suffering from mental illness?

“After going through CIT, I just felt that we can do better,” Marks said. “How can we serve those people better so they are getting what they need … as opposed to using law enforcement as their first entry into the mental health system?”

Last month, Marks won $1,000 in an online contest run by Aftermath, a company specializing in biohazard removal, to use in developing his aftercare model. Part of the grant will go toward starting a wellness program to assist officers dealing with trauma on the job.

“A little bit can go a long way,” he said.