The union that represents Hennepin County's paramedics, emergency medical technicians and emergency medical dispatchers accused Minneapolis officials of planning to use unarmed civilian personnel for certain mental health emergencies with little or no input from health care first responders.
Sam Erickson, vice president of the Hennepin County Association of Paramedics and EMTs (HCAPE), said the union was not included in "any planning or coordination for the new civil response teams." He said it was also his understanding that the new teams are not "fully integrated into the 911 system," despite the "best effort" of Dr. Nick Simpson, chief medical director of Hennepin Healthcare Emergency Medical Services, to work with city officials.
The statement comes after Minneapolis announced this month that it would start sending teams of unarmed mental health professionals on certain calls, instead of police — following in the footsteps of cities such as Denver and Eugene, Ore. But the union's response underscores the growing pains that are certain to occur as the city sets out to "reimagine" public safety. The mobile response pilot program is expected to begin sometime in August. City officials so far have offered few details provided few details about how it would work, but acknowledged that officers still would respond to some mental health-related emergencies, particularly those involving a weapon.
"Integration allows for improved communication and planning, which ultimately keeps everyone safer," Erickson said in the statement. The disconnect, he said, means that when people call 911 seeking a non-police response to a behavioral health emergency they may not necessarily be connected with members of Canopy Mental Health & Consulting. The Richfield-based company beat out three other providers to earn a two-year, $6 million city contract to provide the round-the-clock response services.
Another complicating factor, Erickson said, is that Hennepin EMS has an internal policy that requires paramedics to wait to enter the scene of certain emergencies until police have deemed it safe — "Code 4" in first responder terminology. Some behavioral health-related calls can be handled by civilians, he said, but at times "the police are necessary to keep both the patient and the EMS providers safe."
"HCAPE is unaware of any management plans to change said policy to allow civil response to call a scene safe and request an ambulance for transport," the union, which represents about 160 paramedics and dispatchers in Hennepin County, said in a statement. "Ultimately HCAPE has two guiding principles: the safety of our members and providing world-class medical care. Mental health in an emergency setting is complex and requires a well-thought-out and collaborative approach."
A message left for Canopy seeking comment went unreturned. City Council Member Steve Fletcher on Wednesday pushed back on the notion that Hennepin EMS wasn't given an opportunity to weigh in. He said city officials repeatedly had reached out over the three years that the program has been in the works.
"They fairly consistently have not been interested in partnering in the project," he said in an interview.
He also disputed the assertion that the crisis teams wouldn't be integrated into the city's 911 dispatch system, which he said is separate from the countywide network.
Fletcher said one of the cities that city staff studied in developing the program was Denver, whose Support Team Assistance Response pilot program pairs paramedics and clinicians on calls related to mental health, depression, poverty, homelessness or substance abuse.
"That was something they had to get those teams on the radio system, for dispatch. And in Minneapolis, we don't have to do that," Fletcher said. "It doesn't sound like they can meet us where we are, so I don't think there is alignment right now."
But, he added, "I think we continue to be open to partnership with EMS as they're interested, but we're not going to totally shift the goals of the program."
According to officials, city police officers respond to more than 6,000 behavioral health-related calls a year.
Community activists and mental health specialists cheered the pilot launch as a first step to fulfill a pledge by city officials in the wake of George Floyd's murder in May 2020 to reduce the city's reliance on police and develop new strategies for keeping communities safe.
Advocates hope the new approach will result in fewer people in crisis being arrested or involved in a potentially violent confrontation with police. The change, they say, also would free officers to deal with violent crime.
City officials said they would spend the next few months evaluating the program's effectiveness before deciding whether to make the program permanent.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064