DULUTH – In the not too distant future, when someone in Duluth calls 911 because of a mental health emergency, a new kind of crisis response team could be summoned into action.

That's the idea, anyway. Right now the program is a rough draft, a $1.8 million opportunity that advocates are trying to get exactly right.

"We need to find out where this lives, how we hold whoever has this accountable and what our measurable goals are," said Classie Dudley, president of the Duluth Branch NAACP. "We want to make sure we're best serving the people. We want to make sure it's done properly."

Dudley is part of a working group that has been meeting every other week for several months since the city set aside $2.1 million in federal coronavirus relief money for a crisis response pilot program.

Though $300,000 of that was controversially spent on a downtown social outreach worker this week, the remainder will pay for a three-year pilot program focused on citywide crisis response.

"We need this done yesterday, but we need it done in the right way," said Duluth City Council Member Gary Anderson, who is part of the working group.

The goal of the program is to send unarmed civilians to some emergencies to intervene or connect people with the services they need. Police would not be replaced by those efforts, and the crisis response team would be expected to work closely with law enforcement.

"We're very committed to making sure we work together and that everybody is safe," said Steve Stracek, deputy chief at the Duluth Police Department, "recognizing what we are best at as police officers and recognizing what can be done with civilians."

The department would continue to dispatch its own embedded social workers, registered nurse and opioid technicians.

Though activists want the crisis response team to be fully separate from police, there are some situations that police are required to respond to under state law, Stracek said.

"Our seat at the table has been about making sure there are partnerships," he said. "We can't just step away and say, 'Here's a percentage of our call load.' "

The community crisis response program was first proposed earlier this year by the Duluth Community Safety Initiative, which wants a plan similar to the CAHOOTS model that has been used in Eugene, Ore., for more than 30 years.

There, unarmed medic and crisis workers respond to some mental health and drug use emergencies instead of police.

"We're hoping these people can be local, people of color, people who may have been in situations similar to those they're responding to," said Blair Powless, a member of the Duluth Community Safety Initiative. "That can diffuse situations that otherwise might escalate if the police show up."

Activists are pushing for unarmed crisis response in Duluth in part because people of color are involved in use-of-force incidents and arrested at disproportionately higher rates than white residents in the city.

"We're really trying to de-escalate or minimize the amount of violent interactions between people in crisis and service providers, crisis responders," Powless said.

There is no timeline for rolling out the program. The most immediate step still is figuring out whether this will be a branch of city government, part of a nonprofit or even St. Louis County's responsibility.

The county of 200,000 already has its own crisis response services — Minnesotans in the Duluth area can call 844-722-4724 and those in the northern part of the county can call 218-288-2100.

However, state mandates make it difficult for a county to do some of the things imagined for the pilot program.

"What we're really hoping for in the future is more integration," said Gena Bossert, St. Louis County's behavioral health director.

St. Louis County Commissioner Ashley Grimm, another member of the crisis response working group, said gaps in services will need to be filled and dispatchers likely will need new training.

"It's not enough to create this optimal system. We also need to be able to connect people to it," she said. "This will be one of the most impactful projects most of us will ever work on if we do it right."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496