A dozen deputies from the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office are the latest law enforcement officers in Minnesota to get specific training on how to better respond to people with mental illness.
Last month, 12 of the department’s 41 deputies attended a four-day crisis intervention training course through the Minnesota CIT Officers Association, learning about different types of mental illness and acting out role-playing scenarios with actors simulating mental health crises.
“It definitely opened my eyes to the fact mental health is a huge issue for us in law enforcement,” said Sgt. Shawn Widmer, one of the deputies who attended the training. “We’re the psychiatrist and the social worker; we’re becoming all these things because mental health is becoming an epidemic.”
Across Minnesota, officers are finding themselves on the front lines of mental health issues amid a rising number of mental health-related calls. As a result, more agencies are promoting training so that officers can de-escalate a crisis without using force. A mental health emergency can be triggered even without mental illness, prompted by a job loss or relationship breakup.
Stearns County deputies practiced responding to scenarios such as a suicidal mother on a bridge, reeling from the loss of her daughter, Widmer said. In another scenario, a man with schizophrenia was disruptive outside a church.
Widmer said the training taught deputies how to defuse situations with empathy and verbal de-escalation techniques.
“We go to calls on a daily basis where mental illness is a factor,” he said. “This crisis intervention training just gave us more tools … to better communicate with a person in crisis.”
According to a Star Tribune analysis in 2016, at least 45 percent of people killed by Minnesota law enforcement since 2000 had a history of mental illness or were in a mental health crisis. Yet, as of 2016, on average, only about 15 percent of officers in the state’s 12 largest law enforcement agencies had undergone weeklong crisis intervention training — considered the gold standard for the training.
While most people with mental illness aren’t violent or dangerous, police and mental health advocates say that changes to training could prevent many deadly incidents and reduce the number of people with mental illness ending up in jail or crowded emergency rooms.
“It’s a skill everyone in law enforcement will need,” Stearns County Chief Deputy Jon Lentz said.
The training isn’t cheap, costing the county $6,750 for the 12 officers. But one impetus for it, Lentz said, is that it will soon be required.
Starting in July, legislation will mandate that all law enforcement officers undergo training in three areas — including mental-health crises and conflict de-escalation. The legislation comes with $6 million a year for training for four years. Previously, Minnesota officers were only required to undergo training on use of force and emergency vehicle operation, though a growing number of agencies have started mental health-related training on their own.
As of spring 2016, St. Cloud police had sent seven of 104 officers through a five-day crisis intervention training, although more officers had received other shorter mental health courses. In 2016, the department said mental health-related calls rose 66 percent from 2010 to 2015, totaling more than 600 calls a year.
Elsewhere in the state, police are taking mental health responses a step further with co-responder programs. In Minneapolis, mental health professionals are paired with police on some calls, while in Duluth, a licensed independent clinical social worker now staffs a transit station, assisting police with calls.