When Scott Marks isn’t serving Minnetonka as a community engagement officer, he’s providing counseling at an outpatient clinic in Golden Valley.
Seeing mental health patients “doing the best that they can in their situation definitely helps,” Marks said of his clinical internship, part of his studies for a master’s degree in social work. “As law enforcement officers, we don’t always get that perspective.”
Marks and the rest of the Minnetonka police force hope to improve the way officers respond to crisis calls through a new partnership with Relate Counseling Center, a mental health treatment center in Minnetonka.
The plan is that after a police call involving a mental health crisis, officers will return within the next few days with a therapist from Relate, Marks said.
Minnetonka Police Chief Scott Boerboom said he hopes this reduces the number of people who repeatedly call police for mental health crises, pointing them to experts who can better address their issues.
“At the end of the day, the Police Department is not equipped to be able to manage a crisis and to be able to provide long-term solutions,” Boerboom said. “We need help from other service providers such as Relate.”
The partnership is still in the early stages, and the first visit may not occur until early next year. Relate, a nonprofit, is securing funding to make the follow-up therapist a permanent position, Marks said.
David Senior, executive director of Relate, said the center was grateful for the support of Minnetonka police and the chance to work with them.
“We recognize a cross-functional approach is needed to respond to the increasing number of 911 calls and the complexity associated with those calls,” Senior said in a statement. “Multiple local partners need to work together to determine if improved outcomes are possible.”
A legislative mandate that kicked in on July 1 requires all state and local law enforcement agencies to take crisis intervention and mental illness training.
The majority of crisis calls handled by Minnetonka police concern suicide threats or attempts, according to findings by Jillian Peterson, a criminal justice professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. She saw this firsthand during a ride-along with an officer, she said. The first call they took was a suicide.
She saw another example this month, when Carver County deputies shot and killed a Minnetonka High School student deemed suicidal. The teen’s father had called 911 the night before. Peterson wondered whether the incident could have been prevented.
A proactive alternative
Calls to police involving mental health crises can include anything from psychotic episodes to schizophrenic patients and parents struggling with aggressive children.
Often they’re suicide threats or attempts. Across the country, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline doubled from 2014 to 2017. A state crisis hotline that took calls from the national lifeline shut down in June when the state declined to fund it.
The number of crisis calls last year to Minnetonka police reached 393, an all-time high. At least 180 crisis calls have been made so far this year, and police are on track to record its second-highest number in 12 years, according to Boerboom.
Officers normally have three courses of action when dealing with mental health crises, according to Peterson: Send the person to the hospital, arrest them or leave without taking action.
Revisiting them with a therapist, Marks said, could become a proactive and more successful alternative.
“This was one way for us to try do something,” he said.
The partnership with Relate is the next step in Minnetonka’s efforts to address mental health and crisis de-escalation.
Earlier this year, Minnetonka police piloted a training course on mental illness crises that was codeveloped by Peterson and James Densley, a criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State University. They are now adapting their one-day course for other police departments.
While analyzing crisis calls, the professors found arrests were strikingly low and learned that 80 percent of the people sent by police for hospitalization were not admitted. Group homes were calling police daily.
“Officers were actually pretty good and pretty comfortable at de-escalation in Minnetonka, and we really needed to focus on what happens after,” Peterson said.
The professors made business cards that officers could hand out, with numbers for agencies such as Relate and COPE, Hennepin County’s crisis line.
“I think a mental health professional going out there at a time when someone is not in a crisis and trying to hook them up with resources could have a real impact,” Peterson said.
She added that it’s only part of the solution to reduce the stigma of mental illness. “There is only so much officers can do, and this is a much bigger problem,” she said.
For now, much of the responsibility falls on officers.
Boerboom said much of the department’s work is led by Marks, who is meeting with neighboring departments to form a task force with uniform standards on handling crisis calls.
“We’ve noticed the increase in mental health-related calls, [and Marks is] in the business of trying to figure out how we can do a better job of managing them,” Boerboom said. “Timing is perfect.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.