As police forces across the country re-evaluate their practices regarding encounters with people with mental health problems, Minneapolis authorities are considering an approach that might seem to fly in the face of conventional policing wisdom: Stand down, and leave it to the professionals.

Under a recently announced pilot program, city police officers would be paired with mental health specialists on emergency calls involving such problems. Officials hope the tactic, already in use by departments in Houston, Los Angeles and Madison, Wis., will lead to more peaceful resolutions and decrease the likelihood of jail time — or physical encounters.

While the details of the trial program are still being worked out, officials say it will be launched early next year.

More than half the department’s roughly 829 officers have completed the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) course teaching them ways to avoid using force to defuse potentially violent encounters, police officials say. The other half are expected to finish by the end of the year.

Police say the training, which emphasizes de-escalation tactics in dealing with people who are homeless, suicidal or in the throes of a crisis, is already making a difference.

“It’s all about the verbal de-escalation skills that the training provides these officers and the ability of the training to give the officers confidence that they can talk to somebody for a period of time, and allow them to vent, and allow them a better understanding of what the person is going through or experiencing,” said police Sgt. David Garman, who has run the department’s CIT program for years.

But experts argue that a specialist is better equipped to recognize the telltale signs of someone with a mental disorder, whose behavior even a trained officer may interpret as uncooperative and potentially threatening.

In her budget address last month, Mayor Betsy Hodges pledged to set aside $200,000 for pilot program, which would launch next year.

Under a model outlined in a report this year based on similar units in Houston and Duluth, mental health specialists riding along with police officers during their normal shifts would be assigned emergency calls where mental illness is suspected.

The department is already working with the Hennepin County Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies, or COPE, where a specialist shows up to mental health emergency calls and provides follow-up services. County officials have also discussed building a 24-hour drop-off center in south Minneapolis where those with mental illness could be brought for help instead of being locked up.

‘A different mind-set’

“I think it’s also really useful because the police officer is always going in with that frame of mind of a police officer, which is just a different mind-set than a social worker has going into a situation,” said Jennifer Singleton, who sits on the Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC), the group that released the report.

Through role-playing and classroom instruction, officers are being taught ways to deal with so-called EDPs (emotionally disturbed persons). Officers are trained to use their surroundings and space to give them more time to come up with a way to resolve the situation without resorting to force.

Some officers say that the training is nothing new, and that having a civilian tag along while on patrol poses risks.

“To have a permanent ride-along like that is difficult and potentially dangerous for that citizen,” said Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.

While training is useful in helping officers take a more nuanced approach in mental health situations, it isn’t enough, some experts say, and greater collaboration with the mental health community is needed, in addition to regular checks on the training’s effectiveness.

One PCOC commissioner said that when they sat in on several CIT training sessions, some officers seemed “disengaged.”

Similar efforts popping up

Other local departments have stepped up their efforts.

St. Paul police officials, who announced plans to start a co-responder program earlier this year, say that about 150 officers have undergone CIT training, and the rest of the force will do so by 2017. University of Minnesota Police Chief Matt Clark said that after taking over the department, he started requiring his officers to take an abridged CIT course. Park police receive similar training, officials there say.

Some cities decide to look at their mental health approach after a controversial incident. In Minneapolis, it was the 2000 shooting death of Barbara Schneider, who had bipolar disorder and was shot by police after she refused commands to drop a knife.

Police say they’re increasingly responding to such calls.

According to a 2014 Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association survey, approximately 95 percent of Minnesota law enforcement agencies say such calls have increased over the past five years, with 20 percent of agencies saying the calls more than doubled. The Minneapolis Police Department responded to 4,344 “emotionally disturbed person” calls in 2014 and 4,700 such calls in 2015. Already this year, Garman says, it has handled 3,450.

Results are not clear

Still, it’s unclear whether CIT training leads to less use of force by officers.

A Star Tribune analysis found that nine of the 27 people shot and killed by Minneapolis police since 2000 had a mental illness.

Mental health advocates argue that the new awareness, while welcome, is long overdue.

“It’s kind of surprising that we wouldn’t look at the moral obligation to do the best for that other person who’s on the other end of the 911 call,” said William Czech, who has long advocated for the co-responder approach.

Even a decade ago, he said, the new training might have seemed contrary to one of the central tenets of police work: Officers were traditionally taught to try to identify an aggressor as quickly as possible and neutralize the threat. Now, because of cuts to social services, police officers have been thrust to the front lines of dealing with people with psychiatric disorders, Czech said, and forced to decide whether a subject poses a real threat or is in the throes of a crisis.

He contends that even with improved training, that’s a difficult call to make.

“These are skills that are honed, not just with 40 hours of training, but with experience,” Czech said.


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