One night this summer a young man stumbled out of a house in south Minneapolis where a loud party was underway. He was naked to the waist and distressed to his core. Possibly on drugs, he was clearly in the grip of despair — holding the sides of his head and howling in pain.
A startled dog-walker watched for a moment from a distance, and then pulled out his phone. The young man needed help. As the walker's fingers unlocked the phone, however, a caution light blinked on in his brain. If he called 911, how would the story end? The young man was Black and evidently desperate. If the Minneapolis police came, how might they respond?
The dog-walker's quandary is a sad commentary. Too many recent events can prompt doubts about the wisdom of a call to the Minneapolis police. Officers may be ill-equipped to meet the challenge of an emotionally disturbed person and safely de-escalate the encounter.
So it's appropriate that Minneapolis has arranged with Canopy Mental Health and Consulting to supply crisis teams for use in similar emergencies. The Canopy agreement is part of the City Council's 2020 Safety for All Plan that uses money originally budgeted for the Police Department to fund new approaches to public safety. The need for such help is clear — and so is the potential harm of going without. Which, unfortunately, is where Minneapolis finds itself at the moment.
As reported in the Star Tribune last week, the contract that was supposed to take effect in August has been postponed until approximately November. A city spokesperson blamed "the delay in finalizing signatures on the contract, obtaining unique insurance certificates, specific trainings and background checks."
The delay is disturbing for at least three reasons: One, securing insurance and putting signatures on contracts are not unforeseeable obstacles. A failure to deal with such issues may suggest a lack of thorough planning. Two, Minneapolis is in the grip of a violent-crime wave, and an overworked police force may not have the resources to be patient when confronted with an abusive or violent subject.
Three, Minneapolis police no longer get help from Hennepin County's Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies program. Mental health counselors employed by COPE "were great," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota. "People loved COPE."
That service, which Abderholden pointed out was underfunded and understaffed even before the pandemic, suffered further under the constraints imposed by COVID-19. The police officers who worked with COPE staffers were reassigned.
Leah Kaiser, the senior Hennepin County administrator for behavioral health, told an editorial writer that the county is at work on a wide-ranging reform of mental health initiatives. Those reforms include embedding social workers in dispatch centers.
"We want an effective response for all residents of Hennepin County, including those who live in Minneapolis," she said. The county's effort should produce positive results, Kaiser said, but she acknowledged that Minneapolis is heading down a different path.
Abderholden said she fully understands the factors that may be contributing to Canopy's delay. "If you're starting a brand-new service, you can't just snap your fingers and make it happen," she said. Mental health care in general suffers from a lack of available staff and financial resources. "I know it's really hard for them, and I'm sure staffing is a huge part of it," Abderholden said.
The anguished young man suffering a crisis last summer as a Star Tribune editorial writer walked his dog got the help he so obviously needed. An ambulance arrived, and the encounter ended peacefully. Another positive sign this year was the passage of Travis' Law, named for Travis Jordan, whom police shot and killed three years ago. That law requires dispatchers to funnel mental health calls to crisis teams when circumstances permit.
All the more reason to get those crisis teams up and running in Minneapolis.