Dakota County plans to continue a pilot program aimed at callers who repeatedly dial 911 about mental health concerns, moving it beyond Hastings, South St. Paul and West St. Paul to now include Apple Valley and Rosemount as well.

The initiative, which began a year ago in January and ran through the end of 2019, aims to coordinate the response of law enforcement officers and county social workers when emotionally distressed residents call police.

Officials had hoped they would receive fewer mental health-related calls, said Emily Schug, Dakota County’s social services director.

Preliminary data show that police logged more calls, at least in the short term, due to repeat calls from struggling people who had developed a rapport with responders.

Nevertheless, county and city officials deem the program a success. Many who at first saw reducing 911 calls as the goal now believe that “what’s most important is that we have an effective response and that we’re meeting people where the needs are,” Schug said.

Some people dial 911 for help with a crisis — maybe resolving a fight with a roommate — or something that feels like a crisis to them. During bouts of anxiety or depression, they report wrestling with suicidal thoughts. They share paranoia symptoms, such as fears that they’re being poisoned. Some callers request a welfare check on a grieving friend, or want to describe a neighbor’s odd behavior. West St. Paul Police Chief Brian Sturgeon said he’s seen a “dramatic increase” in such calls over the past six to eight years, echoing statewide reports.

Results hard to measure

For the pilot program, South St. Paul and West St. Paul each dedicated an officer to the program, and the county funded a social worker at a cost of $80,000 to $90,000 to split time between the two departments. Hastings participated on a smaller scale.

A social worker and police officer visited the homes of 619 callers last year in West St. Paul or South St. Paul right after they got a report of a psychological emergency. They introduced themselves, checked on the person’s well-being and offered resources ranging from food shelves to therapists. They also found out whether the person was already getting county assistance.

The key was to build trust, said Kalyn Bassett, the Dakota County social worker assigned to the initiative. “It’s a program that people aren’t expecting,” she said. “It’s been really well-received.”

For a period after that initial follow-up, many of the troubled people called 911, the officer or Bassett more frequently, largely because a relationship was built.

Results can be hard to measure, Bassett said. A visit might keep a person out of the hospital or jail, but that doesn’t show up on paper. And even proactive police interactions count as a call. “A lot of times what [the county] is wanting to know is, how is this pilot benefiting Dakota County financially?” she said. “That’s something that is elusive and challenging.”

More calls, contact

The outreach process begins when Bassett or the assigned police officers — Jesse Mettner in West St. Paul or Derek Kruse in South St. Paul — receives a report about a mental health-related 911 call.

Bassett checks the database to see if the person is connected to county services, something police can’t do because of privacy laws. Then she and the officer visit their home, asking what kind of support they need or finding ways to boost the care they’re getting already.

The program also ensures that emergency dispatch staffers answering phones after hours have information about frequent callers and a plan for their crises.

Each month, officials with the county, both cities and several organizations meet to discuss trends and brainstorm ways to help certain people.

In one case, a client was repeatedly exposing themselves and creating a public nuisance. Once Bassett and an officer contacted the person, there were six more calls over six months. But after they recommended changes in the person’s home and designed a new plan for addressing the behavior, the calls stopped and a court hearing was averted.

In another instance, a woman with a history of paranoia had been sent to the hospital but released when she didn’t meet hospitalization criteria. Police logged many 911 calls from or about her, because her delusions caused her to act out — she thought the bank was stealing from her and she threatened tellers, for instance. Bassett created a bond with the woman, who was finally admitted to the hospital after Bassett’s long-term documentation showed she couldn’t care for herself.

Bassett and officers followed up with 25 to 30 callers each month, though some were repeats. The program didn’t track the number of 911 calls per participant before and after contact with Bassett and police, but the next phase will collect more complete data at the request of the County Board.

Chief Sturgeon noted that the South Metro Fire Department, which provides firefighting and emergency medical services to South St. Paul and West St. Paul, had to respond to fewer calls in 2019 than the year before. Calls related to psychological concerns fell from 566 to 481, a 15% reduction, Sturgeon said.

Assigning an officer to the effort is a hefty commitment for a small department, Sturgeon said. Even so, Apple Valley Police Capt. Nick Francis said his department “jumped at the chance” to participate in the next phase of the pilot program. “We see this coordinated response as the gold standard for police response to persons in crisis,” he said.