Three north metro police departments will start referring cases to a social worker to reduce repeat 911 calls at a time when law enforcement agencies are facing both increased public scrutiny and a rising number of mental health calls.

More police departments across the country are adding social workers, from small towns in Kentucky to Twin Cities suburbs. Crystal, Robbinsdale and New Hope will be the newest additions to Hennepin County’s Embedded Social Worker Project, which already connects social workers with eight police departments throughout the county.

“This is part of a much broader strategic effort on the part of the county to really impact overall health and well-being of people living with mental illness in our communities,” said Leah Kaiser, who oversees the project in the county’s behavioral health department. “No agency can solve this on their own and it’s important to remember this collaboration is key to improving our overall system.”

Kaiser said the collaboration between the county and area law enforcement started in 2018. Some cities share a social worker, while others with higher 911 call volumes have their own. In Bloomington, a second social worker is expected to join Tenzin Gongma-Dhakpo, who said she had more than 900 case referrals last year and is seeing even more this year.

The average annual cost of a social worker is about $120,000; the county covers 40% and the cities pay 60%.

Rather than responding to calls alongside police officers, social workers in the Hennepin County program most often follow up on referrals after officers respond to 911 calls — a model that some advocates say isn’t always effective.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said to reduce fatal police encounters and the number of people with mental illnesses entering the criminal justice system, communities should look to mobile mental health crisis teams — 24/7 services for adults and children.

“If police are the only ones that are responding to a 911 call, we’re not going to change what’s happening,” Abderholden said.

A 2016 Star Tribune analysis found that since 2000, at least 45% of people killed by law enforcement in Minnesota had a history of mental illness or were in a mental health crisis.

In 2017, the state put $12 million toward police training on crisis intervention. This also led to the creation of mobile mental health crisis teams, which in 2021 received an allocation of a little over $13 million.

There are 34 mental health crisis teams across the state, and some are embedded within police departments. In St. Paul, where there is a dedicated mental health unit, a co-responder model involves a social worker and officer going together to the scene of a mental health crisis.

In the Hennepin County program, the embedded social worker acts like a case manager, said Crystal Deputy Police Chief Brian Hubbard. He said the new partnership with the county and two neighboring cities mirrors the way Crystal police provide a domestic violence advocate to victims after a dispute or assault.

“We’re dealing with the acute problem, which is often the manifestation of a longer-term issue. And the officers aren’t going to solve that longer-term issue in most cases,” Hubbard said.

In Plymouth, which shares a social worker with Minnetonka, the approach has been a success, said Michael Goldstein, Plymouth’s public safety director. The nearly two-year partnership will be extended, he said.

Goldstein described the social worker as a “quarterback” who can assess, make recommendations, create connections and check in with people after a crisis.

“Ten years from now it will be an expectation that these services will be the norm,” he said. “There’s no way to turn back.”