Every week, Beckie O’Connor locks up her Richfield rambler and drives to the nearby church where her grief support group meets.
She bakes desserts for people united by a pain few others can understand.
“It’s kind of my therapy,” she said, unwrapping tin foil to reveal the cinnamon blueberry bars and Russian tea cakes she’d prepared for a recent meeting.
The slender 67-year-old carefully set the desserts out for a room filling with people like her, who are mourning lost family members. Then she chose a black marker and a blue name tag, writing “Beckie” on the top left corner, “Jeff” on the bottom right.
“I’m Beckie, and my son was 25,” O’Connor told a group of mothers. “The police shot him.”
In the three years since she lost her son, the shy, soft-spoken mother who had long volunteered for the police department found new purpose in trying to reform it. She wants every officer in Richfield — and Minnesota — to go through formal crisis intervention team (CIT) training. The training, based on a model developed in Memphis, emphasizes listening and empathy to de-escalate a confrontation between the police and a person experiencing a psychological crisis.
O’Connor is convinced that better training would have prevented her son’s death, one of a mounting number of police killings in Minnesota of people with mental illness or experiencing a mental health crisis. She’s uncomfortable being the center of attention, and isn’t leading social media blitzes or protests. She just wants change, starting in her hometown.
“I don’t want this to happen to any other family,” she said.
At a time when police are facing intense scrutiny over the use of force, more law enforcement officials agree with O’Connor that officers need more training.
Yet no one is taking charge.
Minnesota, like most states, doesn’t require police officers to undergo mental health crisis training. If departments want to do the training, they have to pay most of the cost themselves. Bills to require the training have so far failed in the Legislature.
The 40-hour training model is designed for a core group of officers in a department to respond to mental health calls. But many mental health advocates now favor training all officers, saying it benefits them in any situation. A study of the Memphis Police Department, which pioneered the training almost 30 years ago, found that fewer officers were injured on mental disturbance calls, and SWAT team calls dropped after the start of its program.
“We’ve seen it make a difference,” said Roberta Opheim, Minnesota’s ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities.
Some say it’s not enough and want to see a mental health professional in the squad car on patrol. In Duluth, a social worker now accompanies some officers responding to mental health calls.
Most mentally ill people aren’t violent or dangerous. But police departments report that they’re responding to more mental health calls, and the number of fatal encounters between the police and people with mental illness has risen in recent years. Last year, nine of the 13 people who died during encounters with the police in Minnesota either had a history of mental illness or were having a psychological crisis.
“We have completely failed as a mental health system,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit that advocates for better mental illness policies. “You are taking a medical illness, especially a medical illness in crisis, and responding to it with law enforcement. If this was a heart attack or stroke and we sent in a SWAT team, people would be up in arms.”
A call for help
O’Connor wants Jeff, the older of her two boys, to be remembered as a young man who needed help, not a dangerous person with a knife.
At 6 feet 2 inches tall, Jeff was an introvert and a chess player who would get engrossed in thick chess manuals. He was witty, kind and an avid reader who memorized sports stats. And he was excited to be working a new job at Cargill.
He had diagnoses of depression, anxiety and Asperger’s syndrome, and experienced delusions, but his mental health had been stable with treatment, aside from a hospital stay in 2009 — something he was loath to repeat. He had never had contact with police, not even a parking ticket.
He moved in with his aunt in Richfield as an experiment in independence and in 2012, things were going so well that he went off his medication. Later that year, however, his agitation and paranoia began to increase. He had started walking obsessively, and one day, he walked for hours, so long that blisters swelled on his feet.
Later that week, his psychiatrist prescribed an antipsychotic medication and asked Jeff if he felt like harming himself or others, according to his family. No, he answered.
The day after that appointment, O’Connor arrived to pick up her son to take him to a clinic for his blisters. On the chilly October morning, she parked her minivan outside the aunt’s house in Richfield and called Jeff, reassuring him that she wasn’t taking him back to the hospital.
Through the window, she could see her son moving inside the rambler. He was holding a butcher knife.
She called her ex-husband, Dan O’Connor, who had just spoken to Jeff. He said Jeff sounded incoherent. The parents discussed calling 911 but both agreed they didn’t know what they would do if police showed up. Minutes ticked by.
Jeff refused to put down the knife, and his aunt said she couldn’t leave the house. Dan called 911, explaining it was a mental health situation: His son was having paranoid thoughts, had a knife and was holding his aunt hostage.
Sgt. Mark Shelley got the call at 8:53 a.m. at his desk at the station, just two blocks away. He arrived within minutes, meeting officers Tom Blair and Brian Rogge there. They met Beckie O’Connor outside and she told them her son had a history of mental illness, had been hospitalized and was taking a new medication.
The three officers went inside the house. They found Jeff sitting on a living room couch, gripping his aunt’s arm and holding the knife.
According to investigators’ reports, Shelley drew his gun, covering for the two officers as they yelled at Jeff to drop the knife. He didn’t. They approached him, pushing his aunt out of the way, and fired a Taser. Jeff fell back on the sofa but then rose, never saying a word. Rogge tried to get the knife out of his hand. Jeff was “slashing” the knife at the officer’s face and shoulder, the report said. Fearing for the officers’ and the aunt’s safety, Shelley shot twice.
O’Connor was standing outside the house, praying, when she heard the shots.
In a blur of activity, someone broke the news to her: Jeff was dead. It was 17 minutes after his father had called for help.
Afterward, Hennepin County Sheriff’s detectives interviewed O’Connor for 35 minutes. “I just have to say Jeff was a wonderful son,” she told them, weeping. “And I’m just so sorry about this outcome. I never dreamed this would happen.”
A new mission
The following spring, O’Connor started attending a support group at an Edina church while waiting anxiously for answers to what unfolded that October day.
It would take nine months before the Hennepin County Attorney would announce the grand jury’s “no bill” decision, meaning no charges would be filed against Shelley.
“Unfortunately sometimes the only option we have left is deadly force,” Shelley, now a lieutenant, said in a later interview. If Jeff had been alone in a barricade situation, rather than an immediate threat to another person, police would have had more time to respond, he said.
“You’re trying to disarm somebody with a 12-inch butcher knife on the couch unsuccessfully,” he added. “I don’t know at what point you think that it’s not a threat … There was an incredible amount of restraint used prior to using deadly force.”
O’Connor was angry and frustrated by the grand jury’s decision. Having found no justice in the courts, she looked elsewhere.
In December 2013, she received a letter from ombudsman Opheim’s office. The office reviewed the case — standard for anyone like Jeff who gets public mental health services — and sent a letter encouraging Richfield police to train and deploy a crisis response team.
No one tracks how many of Minnesota’s 10,500 law enforcement officers have received crisis intervention training. A Star Tribune survey of the state’s 12 largest police and sheriff’s departments found that, on average, nearly 15 percent of officers have completed the 40-hour crisis intervention program. Eden Prairie’s police department has trained all 42 patrol officers at a cost of more than $20,000. By contrast, the Carver County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t sent any deputies to the weeklong training, though most licensed officers have gone through a one-day session.
O’Connor had to see crisis training for herself, so she contacted the Barbara Schneider Foundation, one of two organizations in Minnesota that train law enforcement, corrections officers and mental health professionals in the crisis intervention training modeled after Memphis’ program.
The foundation started after the 2000 death of Schneider, a 49-year-old Minneapolis woman who had bipolar disorder. Six police officers were sent to her Uptown apartment for a loud music complaint and disruptive behavior. The caller had asked for a crisis team, but the department didn’t have one at the time. Officers confronted Schneider in her bedroom. She called them the “Satan squad” and refused to drop a knife as she walked toward the officers. Two officers shot her.
“Loud music was her only crime,” said Cindy Schneider, her sister-in-law, adding that Barbara was agitated, paranoid and having a mental episode. “We can’t just be gunning down every mentally unstable person.”
Schneider’s death — and two other shootings of mentally ill people in Minneapolis in 1999 and 2000 — spurred not just the start of the foundation in her name but the debut the next year of crisis intervention training in Minnesota. Minneapolis was the first department to embrace it.
“It’s no longer ‘run in and grab them’ – that’s not the answer, ” said Minneapolis Lt. Jon Hoff, who was among the first officers to do the training. “Patience is the most important thing we can bring to it.”
A five-day, 40-hour program is considered the gold standard for police, teaching about schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. Actors simulate crises to help officers defuse a situation through listening and other communication skills, rather than asserting control and authority. For instance, instead of pulling a gun on an agitated man, officers ask him questions and paraphrase his concerns.
A 2014 report by researchers studying Georgia police officers found that officers trained in crisis intervention were more likely to use verbal techniques and less likely to arrest people with behavioral disorders, referring them instead to services or a treatment facility. A 2009 study found that CIT-trained officers chose less force in incidents involving people with schizophrenia than non-CIT trained officers.
O’Connor attended a one-day class at the Barbara Schneider Foundation in 2014. She left with a mission.
‘There was a better way’
A year and a half after Jeff’s shooting, O’Connor sat at her living room computer and wrote to Richfield’s mayor and City Council to ask them to train officers in crisis intervention.
“I am certain that there was a better way to have handled the situation and that could have resulted in Jeff being alive today,” she wrote to city leaders, adding that she understood that the use of force is sometimes necessary, but that aggression doesn’t work when dealing with mentally ill people like Jeff. “This is exactly the kind of person who is not rational and does not respond to aggressive use of force logically or predictably, and he didn’t — and he lost his life for it.”
The city replied with sympathy but said that all of its officers are already highly trained. So O’Connor wrote a second letter demanding change. This time, Richfield City Manager Steve Devich agreed to meet.
It was too painful for O’Connor to return to City Hall, where she had volunteered at the police station for 15 years. So Devich agreed to meet her at a community center. There, she made a plea — and a threat: Train the police in how to handle mental health crises, or she would knock on every door in Richfield with a petition and her son’s story.
“This is going to happen again,” she warned.
Devich said he didn’t know much about the training, but was moved by the mother’s conviction. “I took her word for it,” he said.
He said the city “swallowed hard and went back to the budget” to pay $4,635 for two officers and a chaplain to do the five-day training in 2015 and so far, have given eight hours of that training to the rest of the department.
Cost is a big deterrent for small departments like Richfield, which has 45 officers. They also have to find the time off for officers. That’s less of a hurdle for large departments. St. Paul has made the training mandatory, sending 130 officers a year until all 609 officers go through it. And Minneapolis is spending $150,000 this year to send every patrol officer and supervisor — 500 more officers — to weeklong training. Nearly 200 officers have already completed it.
Professionals caution that the training can reduce, but will not eliminate, use of force. From 2010 through 2015, Minneapolis police killed one mentally ill person. In St. Paul during that time, five people experiencing mental crises or with a history of mental illness were killed by police.
“If you come at me with a knife, I don’t care if you’re a human being or a monkey, there’s something I have to do to protect myself,” said Steven Wickelgren of the Minnesota CIT Officer’s Association. “I don’t see us preventing them [shootings of mentally ill people] just through training; we can reduce it.”
Social services to the streets
Some agencies are experimenting with a new model: pairing officers with social workers on the beat.
In Minnesota, Duluth is the first to test it out, embedding a social worker to help people in crisis and connect adults to social services. St. Louis County and Duluth Police started the one-year, $75,000 pilot program in June 2015, inspired by a Houston program with 12 teams for psychiatric crisis calls. The Houston Police Department calls the team-up with mental health professionals highly effective in dealing with disturbances, although it has no numbers to measure it.
In Duluth, at 12:30 a.m. on a Friday, officer Angela Robertson and county social worker Ona Filipovich patrolled the hilly streets of downtown. Robertson parked her unmarked squad car outside a darkened house. The Lift Bridge shone in the distance.
A woman told police that she had been assaulted and had her purse stolen before being kicked out of a house, where she was staying temporarily, into the 16-degree night. Robertson knew the woman, having responded to her the night before.
“What’s her drug of choice?” asked Filipovich.
“Heroin,” Robertson said, stepping outside, where the woman was screaming at four officers.
The woman was homeless, medicated for mental illness and in need of drug treatment — exactly the repeat caller the new program aims to help.
Filipovich puts together plans to connect people referred to her by officers to social services. She has access to files and caseworker contacts that police don’t, and she helps educate officers on the mental health system.
Perhaps no one is a bigger believer in the program than Robertson. The real estate agent-turned police officer is passionate that law enforcement respond better to mental crises. “We need to figure out how to humanize our role,” she said. “To treat someone like they’re a criminal with mental illness, it isn’t going to work.”
At 1:30 a.m., Robertson was called to the homeless shelter where the woman they had met an hour ago reluctantly went. She’d been kicked out again, with nowhere else to go. She sat on a bench with a pile of clothes, shrieking and swearing.
“Got a pen?” Robertson asked Filipovich as they drove away. “We need to come up with a plan.”
They’d left the woman, still upset, on the bench outside the shelter. But she didn’t go to jail.
‘It’s not enough’
Back in Richfield, Beckie O’Connor was encouraged by the progress across Minnesota and in her own backyard. Richfield Police Chief Jay Henthorne said all officers will eventually be trained in CIT, but O’Connor sees what’s been done as a good first step.
“It’s not enough,” she said, vowing to continue to write the city and legislators to fund the training.
At the end of the weekly support group, O’Connor told the other mothers how she’s found purpose in pushing for the training and sharing her son’s story. She’s also found solace in working out at the YMCA and reading books to a neighbor kid. And she bakes.