Nearly five months have passed since a panel convened by the city of Minneapolis unanimously chose an operator for a new 24-hour program that will send mental health professionals to certain emergencies rather than police, but the official start date of the program has been pushed back to later this fall.

The program, which will be operated by Canopy Mental Health & Consulting under the name Canopy Roots Team, is part of the City Council's 2020 Safety for All Plan that uses money originally budgeted for the Police Department to fund alternative approaches to addressing public safety.

Staff from the city's Office of Performance and Innovation said at a Public Health and Safety Committee meeting in July that they expected the program to start sometime in August. But the program still hasn't launched, further prolonging a gap in the mental health crisis response available to 911 callers.

"Due to the delay in finalizing signatures on the contract, obtaining unique insurance certificates, specific trainings and extensive background checks, we are likely to start in November," said city spokeswoman Steph Fenner. "We are intentional in our being thorough to make sure that no stone is left unturned in providing a vital service to Minneapolis residents while ensuring the safety of our responders.

"The training also ensures that our responders are well integrated into our 911 systems while building relationships with them that will be long lasting," she added.

City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, who heads the Public Health and Safety Committee, was understanding of the delay. "Rolling out any new city system, especially doing it well, takes time," he said. While he didn't have an exact timeline for the launch, he said he expects it to be added to an upcoming committee meeting agenda once more information becomes available.

In the meantime, the city's previous "co-responders" program that paired police officers with mental health counselors from Hennepin County has been inactive since last fall, primarily because the COVID-19 pandemic limited the county's ability to provide counselors, according to Police Department spokesman Garrett Parten. That, paired with low staffing within the department, resulted in the department reassigning its co-responder officers to other patrol duties, he said.

Leah Kaiser, Hennepin County's senior department administrator for behavioral health, said that "the county is hoping to partner with the city to restart supports for mental health calls to 911."

When the Safety for All Plan was introduced, mental health advocates expressed concern about the time it would take to develop a new program rather than expand the existing co-responders initiative.

"Time and funds to develop infrastructure would not be needed if there is a contract with Hennepin County," representatives from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota and Communities United Against Police Brutality wrote in a joint letter to the City Council last December.

The city went on to sign a two-year $6 million contract with Canopy, effective Aug. 16.

City officials said there would be criteria set so dispatchers would know which 911 calls to divert to the Canopy team and that metrics would be developed to assess the program's performance. Neither of those have been released. The Office of Performance and Innovation, 911, and Canopy are working to finalize them, Fenner said.

Christina Saint Louis • 612-673-4668