Minneapolis officials are launching a new civilian crisis response corps to handle certain mental health emergencies without police, a move that lawmakers and advocates hope will lead to better outcomes for people in crisis.

The pilot program, operated by Richfield-based Canopy Mental Health & Consulting, features mental health professionals in two-person teams who will always be on call. Last month, the City Council approved a two-year, $6 million contract with Canopy, which beat out three other providers.

Officers will still respond to some mental health-related emergencies, for instance those involving a weapon, but the new mobile response teams will be dispatched to many behavioral health calls.

The change fulfills a key demand among many activists, who since George Floyd's murder have taken aim at the city's reliance on police for emergencies that don't necessarily require an armed response. The first teams will hit the streets next month, officials said.

"We found a provider that is culturally competent that reflects the community and that shares our values," said City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham at a meeting Thursday of the Public Health and Safety Committee. "This is what it looks like to take something from a community demand all the way through a concrete action."

Earlier in the meeting, council members heard from Canopy's Jimmie Heags Jr., who said the firm was majority Black-owned and focused on "centering the experiences and mental health needs of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] and other marginalized communities."

He added that the firm was founded last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and unrest following Floyd's murder. A message left for Heags on Friday wasn't immediately returned.

In December, the City Council voted to redirect nearly $8 million from the Minneapolis Police Department's budget to fund its vision of crime prevention, which prioritizes mental health care and drug treatment to address the cycles of trauma that can lead to violence in poor communities.

The change comes as cities across the country are investing in teams of mental health counselors, gang-intervention workers and other professionals to respond to low-risk calls instead of police officers.

In an interview Friday, Council Member Steve Fletcher said the new approach grew in part out of the city's 911/Police Department Workgroup, which studied alternatives to police involvement in some emergency responses.

He said that city staff also studied similar initiatives in Eugene, Ore., and Denver, whose Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) pilot program pairs paramedics and clinicians on calls related to mental health, depression, poverty, homelessness or substance abuse.

Ultimately, Fletcher said, the new program's goal is to build public trust and reduce occasionally violent interactions between police and people experiencing a mental health crisis.

He said officials would spend the next few months evaluating the program's effectiveness — "How many calls they're going on, what kind of outcomes are we seeing?" — before reporting their findings to the council later this year.

"One of the unknowns is whether once people know there's an unarmed response that most people feel safe with is whether they call 911 more often," Fletcher said. "We'll be asking the question about whether this service could expand to other behavioral areas or whether we want to keep it specifically focused."

He said that 911 dispatchers have undergone recent training to help them recognize calls where a non-police response would be more appropriate.

Some people, inside and outside of MPD, point out that police may still be called because some mental health calls can escalate without warning.

Also unclear is how the new program will work with the department's existing co-responder initiative, which pairs officers — wearing "soft uniforms" of polo shirts and navy pants, and driving unmarked cars — with mental health counselors. Police officials have praised the program, which was temporarily sidelined during the pandemic, saying it resulted in fewer mentally ill people going to jail.

Department spokesman John Elder did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

MPD and other departments across the country have for years trained officers in crisis intervention, but often officers who encounter someone in the throes of a mental health crisis have had few options.

If the call involved a low-level offense, such as trespassing or disorderly conduct, instead of taking suspects to jail MPD officers could drop them off at the county-operated Behavioral Health Center at 1800 Chicago Av., which, among other services, provides mental and chemical health treatment. Others were taken to an area hospital, where they could potentially be placed on a hold.

Critics say that sending an armed officer to try to defuse a situation involving a mentally ill person could have the opposite effect.

Mental health experts agree, pointing out that a specialist is likely to take a more empathetic approach and be better equipped to recognize the signs of someone with a mental disorder, whose behavior even a trained officer may interpret as uncooperative and potentially threatening.

A 2016 report by the Police Conduct Oversight Commission called on the department to step up its crisis intervention training, both for rookie officers at the academy and for veterans, and establish clear guidelines for when specialized Crisis Intervention Team officers should be dispatched.

But, the report's authors concluded, "even with these practices in place, officers and community members are asking for further resources and programs to handle the still high numbers of officer interactions, use of force against and incarceration of such individuals."

While most people with mental illness aren't violent or dangerous, a Star Tribune analysis of all use-of-force deaths in Minnesota found that at least 45% of people killed by law enforcement since 2000 had a history of mental illness or were in a mental health crisis.

One such incident happened in Minneapolis in November 2018, when police fatally shot an apparently suicidal man, 36-year-old Travis Jordan, after he emerged from his home armed with a large kitchen knife and refused police orders to drop the weapon.

The two officers involved were later cleared of wrongdoing in the shooting, but family members maintained that police could have done more to defuse the situation.

The Legislature this year passed a bill, named after Jordan, that would require 911 operators to refer mental health calls to mobile crisis teams "when appropriate."

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064

Twitter: @StribJany