Initial pledges from elected city officials to abolish or defund the Minneapolis police have changed to, "we didn't mean abolish. We will still have armed police officers to respond to violence."
Stop and think. If concerns about current policing include use of force, violence, racial inequities and militarization, how will relegating officers to being the "gun squad" reform the culture? What a miserable job that would be. That can't be healthy.
I was told when I started in 1975 that only 15% of an officer's time is spent on law enforcement. That has been recently validated. We were taught the police are often the first point of public contact from the city.
For me, it was the other 85% that made it rewarding to come to work.
It is now often said that officers are asked to respond to situations that they are unprepared to deal with. That is sometimes true. But the first examples usually cited are mental health crises.
You know what? Many officers actually are well-prepared for that.
In an 11-month period in 2000, three fatal encounters between Minneapolis police and people in mental health crises — Rocco Dandrea, Alfred Sanders and Barbara Schneider — outraged family members and advocacy organizations. The public demanded answers and change.
Then Chief Robert Olson directed me toward Memphis, where police and the community had developed the seminal Crisis Intervention Training. The MPD academy director and the department psychologist paid a visit to Memphis and came back highly recommending the crisis program for Minneapolis. With the support of Hennepin County, mental health advocacy groups and Sen. Paul Wellstone, CIT came to Minnesota. MPD was the first adopter.
That training, which remains similar today, involves a 40-hour curriculum. It teaches about major mental illnesses, medications, the psychology of mental health crisis and best practices to de-escalate and safely resolve them. It often includes discussions with people who live with a mental illness and their families. The course is taught by experienced CIT officers and practicing mental health clinicians.
Often cited as the most important component are crisis intervention role plays. Today we have professional actors who can authentically portray persons with major mental illnesses. If officers approach with a command and control attitude, the actors will escalate. If officers use techniques they've been taught, remain empathetic, compassionate, and persistent, the actors allow them to have success.
The training is now provided by nonprofits outside of police departments, dedicated to helping first responders resolve mental health crises non-violently. Two of the Minnesota nonprofits that do this work are the Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team (MNCIT) and the Barbara Schneider Foundation. I have worked with both and am currently on the board of MNCIT.
I sat in this past week as veteran Minneapolis officers attended the CIT course. I was impressed with the training delivered by clinicians, CIT police trainers, and the actors. I was even more impressed with how seriously officers took the role plays, the compassion they showed and their patience to resolve crises peacefully.
In an ideal world police would not be involved in mental health response. But that is unrealistic. Calls do not always come in identified as "a mental health crisis." Sometimes violence or the threat of violence is present. Sometimes police are the only emergency responders immediately available. And sometimes police just encounter people in crisis while on routine patrol.
If higher-level mental health resources are available and appropriate, we should provide them. The MPD co-responder program, currently on staffing hiatus, is another option. My wife was a Hennepin County social worker with a mental health caseload for 34 years. Everyone who knows her work says she was excellent. She was physically assaulted three times, once seriously.
She developed a good sense for danger, and when it seemed likely she would ask police officers to accompany her. If the scene was safe, she would thank the officers and let them get back to other duties. She said she never had a bad experience with either a Minneapolis or suburban officer.
It is highly likely police officers will remain involved in mental health crisis response in Minneapolis. That being the case, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our officers have the resources, understanding and training to compassionately bring mental health crisis emergencies to a safe conclusion.
Greg Hestness is board chair of the Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team. He is a retired chief of the University of Minnesota Police Department and a retired deputy chief of the Minneapolis Police Department.