It was a rather routine call to Eden Prairie police: a domestic dispute at a house with a mentally ill, intoxicated man. But the response by officers over the next half-hour was anything but routine.
Instead of confronting the man, an officer who had just completed training on defusing tense encounters calmly asked him questions and listened to his concerns.
It helped. The man cooperated, and no one was hurt.
“He was really amped up,” said Sgt. Dave Becker, who supervises the crisis intervention team. “You could see him start to calm down; they made a connection.”
As scrutiny of police intensifies in the aftermath of high-profile officer-involved shootings, there’s a renewed push for more officers to undergo de-escalation training — which emphasizes empathy over force.
Two bills have been introduced in the Legislature that would require such training. One, with bipartisan support, is moving through the committee process. Earlier this month, a presidential task force recommended that crisis intervention training be a part of both basic recruit and in-service officer training across the country.
Some police departments are already doing it. St. Paul, which has offered crisis intervention team (CIT) training for more than a decade, now requires it of recruits. Minneapolis is pushing to have every patrol officer get it; so far, 100 of its 820 officers have taken the classes. In nearby Golden Valley, two-thirds of about 30 patrol officers have taken them. And in Eden Prairie, all 35 patrol officers will complete them by the end of this year — an investment of more than $20,000.
“It’s very expensive,” Becker said. “But you look at one lawsuit and it could run in the millions. [The training is] well worth it.”
Eden Prairie started a crisis intervention team in 2011 after a spike in psychiatric calls and suicide attempts. But law enforcement leaders say it can help police better respond to any call.
“CIT does go against normal police training of ‘I’m here to take control, I have authority, you need to listen to me.’ … It teaches what those other options [are],” said Steve Wickelgren of the Minnesota CIT Officer’s Association.
The group has trained officers in 31 counties and 39 cities in Minnesota. The training is also offered through organizations such as the Minneapolis-based Barbara Schneider Foundation, started in 2000 after police shot and killed a woman during a mental health crisis call.
“CIT is really the gold standard,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota. “The time has come where officers need to know what to do.”
Improving listening skills
Last month, in a Mall of America conference room, officers in crisis intervention training practiced a role-playing scenario, with an actor portraying an agitated person who had just been fired.
With a fake gun in his waistband, the actor screamed obscenities at police and threatened to hurt his boss. Wickelgren, a former Minneapolis sergeant, calmly encouraged officers to paraphrase the man’s concerns and refrain from pointing a gun at him and potentially making the situation worse.
Small groups of St. Paul police recruits participated in similar exercises in January to improve listening skills and pick up on telltale behavior of people they interact with on calls.
“I think this can be applied in an officer’s everyday interactions, from the simple moving violation to … dealing with a person who is in crisis and threatening to do harm to himself or others,” said Sgt. Paul Paulos, a St. Paul police spokesman and CIT coach.
Results are difficult to track, he said, but the training also helps lower Internal Affairs complaints and officer injuries.
De-escalation can save lives
St. Paul’s emphasis on the training comes amid recent criticism of the department for its use of deadly force. Since 2009, St. Paul police have shot and killed 12 men, more than any other law enforcement agency in the state. In a recent interview, Chief Tom Smith attributed the spike to several factors, including more interactions with people who are mentally ill.
One such encounter came last summer on the city’s West Side, when two officers confronted Guillermo Canas, 36, after receiving calls about him damaging vehicles.
For months, Canas had told his family that he kept “seeing people” who would hit him, his sister-in-law Marta Lopez said recently through a translator.
Early on Aug. 28, neighbors reported that Canas was throwing rocks in a yard and talking to himself. Hours later, after police responded to a call that he was damaging vehicles, he threw rocks at officers and ignored their orders to stop. The confrontation ended when an officer shot him several times, police said.
“They took away a father, a husband,” said Lopez, adding that police could have tried other options to calm Canas.
Beckie O’Connor of Richfield has pushed for CIT since police shot and killed her son, Jeff, 25, in 2012.
Officers had been called to a relative’s house on a report of a man with a knife. When they arrived, O’Connor told them her son was having a mental health crisis. Officers used a Taser on him, but it was “ineffective,” a state review later said. Within two minutes, officers shot and killed him.
A grand jury cleared the officer involved in the shooting. But because Jeff O’Connor had received mental health services, his death was reported to the state’s ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. In a letter to Hennepin County Human Services and Richfield police, sent more than a year after the shooting, the agency wrote that it didn’t appear police used a crisis response team and stated that it encourages all law enforcement to do so.
“I’m convinced Jeff would still be alive if a crisis intervention team had been sent in instead of a SWAT team,” Beckie O’Connor said.
Two Richfield officers and a chaplain are scheduled to get mental-illness-specific crisis intervention training this spring. They then will train all 45 patrol officers later this year.
“Clearly, law enforcement is recognizing the importance of crisis de-escalation training not just for mental health but for anything,” said Nathan Gove, executive director of the state Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training.
But, Gove added, “even with that training, there is no guarantee of successful resolution. No training in the world is going to resolve [a situation] ... if someone comes out of a car with a weapon; the officers are going to respond to that.”