Minneapolis officials plan to expand a pilot program that pairs police officers with mental health specialists on calls involving people with mental illness who are in crisis.
Since September, the co-responder model has been operating in the two police precincts that cover south Minneapolis — the Third and the Fifth — which police say account for more than half of all mental health-related calls. Next, officials are looking to bring the program to the downtown First Precinct, a senior police commander told City Council members this week.
“There is a significant gap in services provided to this community,” Fifth Precinct Inspector Kathy Waite said at a meeting of the Public Safety committee last week. “The jail is no place for people that are struggling with mental illness.”
She said it was unclear how much the expansion would cost.
The proposal comes as law enforcement officials around the country are responding to an increasing number of mental health-related calls and looking for solutions to the problem.
Waite said the two South Side precincts had experienced an increase in calls for emotionally disturbed persons, or EDPs in police parlance. She attributed this in part to people feeling more comfortable calling the police when a loved one is in crisis.
Working in pairs with mental health workers, officers respond wearing polo shirts and navy pants instead of their police uniforms and drive an unmarked car while responding to a call, because “we don’t want to bring stigma to people that are in crisis,” she said. Patrol officers would still respond to serious emergencies involving weapons, Waite said.
The approach, already used in cities like Madison, Wis., and Houston, has shown promising early results, she said. The unit made 326 contacts with people suffering from some degree of mental illness — 277 adults and 49 juveniles — between September and April. Of those, 149 people remained in their homes, 96 were taken to a hospital and 81 were gone before police arrived. None was taken to jail, according to Waite. Department statistics show that the number of such calls has jumped from 2,300 in 2011 to 6,499 last year, an increase of more than 182 percent. So far this year, police have fielded 3,150 EDP calls, the statistics show.
The pilot runs through August.
Council Member Steve Fletcher, vice chairman of the committee, promised to explore the expansion during budget talks later this summer.
Council Member Linea Palmisano said at the meeting Thursday that she and Council Member Cam Gordon “feel strongly about this project and we will continue to work on it and make it more of a pilot.”
But several council members had reservations.
Phillipe Cunningham said he was encouraged by the program’s progress but wondered why the North Side wasn’t being considered. He said the stigma around mental health is particularly strong in those communities, which might explain why fewer people are calling 911.
“It makes me wonder how many people are going to jail in the Fourth Precinct rather than” receiving these services, he said.
Jeremiah Ellison, his fellow North Side council member, chimed in: “I have a hard time believing that folks just aren’t suffering mental health.”
Waite said that budget constraints meant the program could only be installed in the Third and Fifth precincts so far, and only during daytime hours. “I think in the future if we were able to provide 24-hour coverage, that would be fantastic,” she said.
Police spokesman John Elder said that most of the department’s officers have completed 40-hour crisis intervention training to better handle mental-health emergency calls while reducing the use of deadly force.
Police say the training, which emphasizes de-escalation tactics in dealing with people who are homeless, suicidal or in the throes of a crisis, is already making a difference.
County officials have also discussed building a 24-hour drop-off center in south Minneapolis where those with mental illness could be brought for help instead of being locked up.