Mental health crisis calls reported by Minnetonka police fell by almost a quarter in 2018, after officers took part in a crisis intervention program developed by two Twin Cities criminal justice professors.

The decline in crisis calls contrasts dramatically with statistics from comparable metro-area cities, said Jillian Peterson, a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul who developed the training program with James Densley of Metropolitan State University.

"We were thrilled, honestly, and kind of shocked," she said.

Elsewhere, last year's crisis calls — which typically involve depression, suicide threats, psychosis or erratic behavior under the influence of drugs or alcohol — either increased from the previous year or declined only slightly.

Peterson and Densley are seeking grants to provide other police departments with similar training, which could be tailored to the needs and circumstances of each area.

"Our goal is to train five more police departments within the next couple of years," Peterson said.

In Minnetonka, everyone on the police department staff — civilians as well as the 57 sworn officers — was required to take the training in February 2018. Last year's calls totaled 302, which was 23 percent fewer than the previous year.

"These are good numbers," said Minnetonka Police Chief Scott Boerboom. "The training gave the officers some tools to use when somebody is in crisis."

Minnetonka officers responding to crisis calls now spend more time at the scene, he said. They also often follow up in the next day or two to see how the subjects are doing.

Crisis calls have shot up dramatically in recent years in many jurisdictions, more than doubling in Minnetonka alone from 2013 to 2017. That's partly because people with mental illness are becoming more willing to reach out for help, Boerboom said. Also, police departments have become more careful about distinguishing mental health crises from other emergency calls.

The daylong training, called the R-Model (for Research-Respond-Refer), stresses linking police with agencies that specialize in treating mental health crises. In Minnetonka, those include Relate Counseling Center, a local mental health treatment center, and COPE, Hennepin County's crisis line.

Typical police responses to mental health crises include sending subjects to a hospital. But Boerboom said R-Model participants learned that "just sending somebody down to the hospital for an evaluation is not always the best route." Research by Peterson and Densley showed that 80 percent of people sent by police for hospitalization were not admitted.

Now Minnetonka officers provide subjects with a card listing local mental health agencies and encourage them to make contact. Those referrals help reduce repeat calls to police, Boerboom said.

The one-day training session included a talk by a former police officer with mental illness who described what his own crises felt like. The speaker said he did not always remember events that occurred during a manic episode, helping officers understand that those actions may not be deliberate.

Surveys taken by participants before and after the training, with questions such as whether they would hire someone with mental illness, showed some changes in perspectives about mental health.

Peterson and Densley devised the one-day training as an alternative to a standard weeklong crisis intervention team (CIT) program that many departments use. CIT, which takes officers away from their regular duties for a week and can cost up to $800 per participant, burdens small departments, Peterson said. Many departments send only some of their officers to CIT training, often those already skilled in responding to crisis calls.

"What you really need is to train the people who aren't good at it," she said.

Minnetonka police are planning further improvements in their strategies for handling crisis calls, Boerboom said. For example, officials are working on a plan with the Plymouth Police Department to partner with a social worker who would provide follow-up counseling.

"It's one of several things we're going to be doing to reduce repeat calls for service and produce a better outcome for those in need of it," Boerboom said.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583