The city of Minneapolis should consider expanding the roles of counselors, traffic officers and community service patrols in certain low-risk 911 calls, according to a group tasked with finding alternatives to police involvement in some emergency responses.
The city's 911/Police Department Workgroup, made up of city officials and community members, presented its findings at this week's meeting of the Public Safety and Emergency Management Committee, which accepted the recommendations without saying how it planned to proceed. Some in the coalition asked for more time to study other options.
The group made several recommendations this week. One was to explore a crisis intervention team developed in Eugene, Ore., that pairs paramedics with counselors on certain mental health calls.
Other recommendations included having community service officers, who are unarmed, respond to low-risk traffic calls and other urgent, but nonemergency situations; directing theft reports to 311 or the department's website; and developing a nonemergency mental health help line.
Next steps should include using "predictive analytics" to better define what constitutes a "low-risk" call, the group said, since some emergencies, notably those involving weapons, require a police response under state law. City Council Member Linea Palmisano cautioned that like the other proposals, this will require substantial funding, as well as buy-in from police administration, the police union and outside agencies.
Palmisano, who sits on the Public Safety Committee, said she was encouraged by the group's progress but said some proposals need fleshing out.
The findings come amid a pitched debate over police resources, fueled in recent months by videos showing people being violently assaulted and robbed after leaving downtown bars, and the disclosure that a high number of emergency calls get no immediate response.
Several speakers on Wednesday called the group's work a promising step but said there is still work to be done.
"We are here basically asking for an extension so that there is more time for us to do work," said Michelle Gross, founder of Communities Against Police Brutality.
Her appeal was echoed in a letter from the work group to committee members.
"We respect the intention behind the inclusion of community members in this work group, and it also must be noted that a more diverse mix of individuals would have created a more representative group," the letter read. "We believe a work group with true and equal — or a majority — community representation could help to steer real systems change."
For months, the group has considered alternatives to calling police for issues like purse snatchings and traffic violations, or situations in which mental health is involved; such calls would instead be diverted to agencies that proponents say are better suited to handle them, without unnecessarily criminalizing those involved, thereby freeing up officers to respond to more serious emergencies.
Longtime activist Kathy Czech said that ever since federal funding for mental health programs started drying up in the 1980s, police have been forced into the role of caretaker. Yet, even with special training, officers aren't always equipped to deal with mentally ill individuals, for whom jail is just a "revolving door" to trouble, she said.
"This is no discredit to the police — they do an awesome job, they're just not trained for this," said Czech.
The work group also considered a proposal to expand the department's co-responder unit, which pairs officers with mental health counselors in all five of the city's police precincts, to after-hours and weekends. But some group members voiced reservations about adding more police officers, which goes against the group's mandate to come up with non-police solutions, said Andrea Larson, the city's director of strategic management.
"There are concerns that this does not address the staff direction; in fact it would be the investment of five new MPD police officers," Larson said in her presentation. The proposal's first-year cost is about $1.3 million.
Emotionally disturbed persons, or EDP calls, make up roughly 3% of all 911 responses, while accounting for 5 to 10% of the time officers spend on calls, according to data compiled by the work group.
Even as crime rates have steadily dropped, Minneapolis police officials said that more officers are needed as the department is increasingly swamped with calls arising from social factors like poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing and isolation. Not only do response times suffer, officials said, but the heavy workloads are taking a physical and psychological toll.
Committee members also heard a presentation about a promising diversion program started in Seattle to steer low-level drug users away from the criminal justice system and toward treatment. A University of Washington study found that the program appears to have reduced recidivism rates dramatically among its participants.