The fatal police shooting of a possibly suicidal man on Minneapolis’ North Side last week has renewed calls for better responses to mental health crises.
City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham is leading the charge after months of quietly pushing for an expansion of the department’s mental health co-responder program, which pairs officers with counselors on calls involving mental health crises.
Cunningham blamed the program’s limited rollout on a lack of funding — saying it would cost $1 million per year to expand it citywide — but said that he disagreed with the suggestion that north Minneapolis has fewer residents suffering from mental illness than other parts of the city. If anything, he said, North Siders may be more reluctant to call 911 out of fear of police intervention.
“You could ask probably any North Sider — especially anyone of color on the North Side — ‘Would you call the police if somebody that you knew was going through a mental health crisis?’ They would say no,” Cunningham said in an interview Monday. “I would say no.”
The proposal could gain new traction after last week’s death of 36-year-old Travis Jordan, which comes amid a national debate involving when and how police officers use force against the mentally ill.
Calls for expanding the program were quickly echoed by advocacy groups like Survivors Lead and the Racial Justice Network, which in a statement Monday also called for a public review of the department’s mental health policy.
A 2010 study found that north Minneapolis had the largest share of adults with “serious psychological distress” of any area in Hennepin County.
Jordan was killed Friday after a woman, believed to be his girlfriend, asked police to do a wellness check on Jordan, because she believed that he would hurt himself.
According to a transcript of her 911 call, the woman is heard telling the dispatcher that he “wasn’t violent” and made no mention of him being armed. Jordan’s relatives say that she later called back to alert authorities that Jordan may have armed himself with a knife, but it’s unclear whether that information was passed on to officers, who had already arrived on scene.
Police say that Jordan was shot after he emerged from his house, holding a knife.
As the investigation by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension moved into its third day, the question of whether the presence of a co-responder team would have yielded a different outcome remained open.
The year-old co-responder program, run with Hennepin County, is currently operating in the two police precincts that cover south Minneapolis — the Third and the Fifth — which police say account for more than half of the city’s mental health-related calls. The unit pairs officers with mental health service providers from the county’s Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies program, or COPE, to handle certain calls involving individuals with cognitive disabilities and mental illness. The officers, who have been specially trained to defuse situations dealing with the mentally ill, respond while wearing “softer” uniforms of polo shirts and navy pants and drive an unmarked squad car to “help avoid triggering a negative response and also to reduce the stigma” of having police present, officials say.
Minneapolis Police spokesman John Elder said that the co-responder unit “would not have changed this incident,” because it isn’t dispatched to calls “with the implication or statement of a weapon being involved” and then is only summoned after a scene has been deemed safe by responding officers.
Department officials announced plans to move the program to the downtown First Precinct on a pilot basis at a meeting earlier this year. Mayor Jacob Frey’s budget proposal for 2019 calls for a one-time infusion of $74,000 along with new annual funding of $206,000 for the program’s expansion.
A fuller portrait of Jordan was still emerging on Monday.
Friends and relatives described the Maui, Hawaii, native as an easygoing man, who despite his struggles with depression and bipolar disorder, would never harm a soul.
Carl, a friend who declined to use his last name out of fear of attracting unwanted attention, said that Jordan was in many ways a typical Hawaiian, with a love of surfing and a laid-back vibe that followed him when he moved to the mainland. Jordan, who went by “TJ,” was in a relationship and had held down a series of bartending jobs downtown as he searched for his place in life.
The two officers involved in the shooting have yet to be identified and remain on standard paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the BCA investigation. Neither had been in the precinct very long, department sources say.
Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the union that represents city and Minneapolis Park police officers, said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the co-responder program, but said it isn’t realistic in many situations involving emotionally disturbed people.
“If it can remove our officers from the scrutiny and media attention and put it on someone else, I totally support it,” said Kroll, while adding that the ordeal was traumatic for all involved, including the officers. “No one wants to go to work to take a life.”