Brian Smith, who leads the city of Minneapolis office responsible for launching teams of mental health professionals to de-escalate certain conflicts traditionally handled by police, was heralded this summer in Germany for work that "counters structural injustice."
But in Minneapolis, the future of the Office of Performance and Innovation (OPI), seen by its supporters as a key cog in the city's effort to expand public safety alternatives to armed police, is up in the air.
In the first three and a half months since Minneapolis' behavioral crisis response teams rolled out, they diverted 1,600 emergency calls from police, Smith said. The teams operate weekdays, but he anticipates the units will expand to around the clock by fall.
But City Council members backing OPI's mission have been pressuring Mayor Jacob Frey to define how the agency will function going forward in relation to his ongoing restructuring of City Hall governance structures, and say they are unsatisfied with his answers. Complicating the matter further, Smith and other OPI staff came out publicly against Frey's appointment of City Coordinator Heather Johnston, who got the job despite criticism that the office had become a "toxic, racist and unsafe workplace."
Amid the City Hall jostling, Smith was among three recipients — including the vice prime minister of Ukraine — of this year's Creative Bureaucracy Festival award in Berlin. Smith, organizers said, "is responsible for overcoming deep-seated mistrust between the state and the population and, in particular, for protecting the socially disadvantaged."
"The reward for me is the impact that the work has had on residents," Smith said. "I don't need a thanks, but people like to be appreciated."
Integrating a new mental health service into the existing emergency response system required a logistical and rational shift that was at times frustrating but also illuminating, he said.
"It had its challenges because you had people would say, 'We know we need to change,' but then change means they have to learn new things, and that's not always easiest to get people to do," Smith said. "Some of the very people who on principle agreed with the work we needed to do also created obstacles for us. But we worked all that out."
Minneapolis police Deputy Chief Erick Fors, whom Smith credited with championing OPI's work within the MPD, helped troubleshoot potential pitfalls and train the sworn rank and file about what the mobile mental health units would do and how they would interact.
"[Behavioral crisis response] really was received well by the rank and file," Fors said. "The main question we generally get is when there's going to be more of them, which is always a good sign that they're being seen as valuable, and they're being requested by our personnel quite regularly."
OPI was created by a three-year Bloomberg grant in 2015. Afterward, it received continued funding from the city. Its other functions have included evaluating the city's 22 departments, helping renters avoid eviction, conducting an MPD staffing study and launching the team that provides technical assistance to small businesses.
"The beauty of working with them was ... the way [the city] normally works with big developers, they'll work together on our small business," said chef Tomme Beevas of Pimento Jamaican Kitchen, who opened his Nicollet Avenue location with a backyard BBQ patio thanks to help from Smith. "That's traditionally not done."
After speaking out
As the mayor continues to reveal pieces of his plan for restructuring city government, the fate of divisions under the City Coordinator's Office has yet to be defined — making some City Council members worry about the potential elimination of OPI.
"There is no road map that's been told to council about where these programs are going to be housed next," as well as honoring the promise that those who spoke out publicly will not lose their jobs, said Council Member Robin Wonsley.
Council Member Elliott Payne, who worked in OPI until his election to the First Ward office last year, said he's also concerned about whether the office would survive the transition, or if individuals who publicly criticized the culture of City Hall would face professional repercussions. Additionally, he worried restructuring would leave the council without enough policymaking support staff.
Payne requested, as a potential solution, moving four full-time OPI employees over to the legislative arm of the city.
In an e-mail response to council members on Wednesday, Frey said he would transfer four full-time employees from OPI to assist City Council in its legislative function, and that the move will appear in his 2023 budget proposal in August.
That proposal isn't final and leaves some questions that still need to be answered, said Payne. OPI has more than four employees, and a slew of unfinished work.
"In my conversations with the mayor, I'm trying to ... prioritize legislative support," Payne said. "I think OPI is well suited to deliver on that and I want to get some commitments around making sure that OPI remains intact."