Minneapolis considering swapping police with mental health professionals for some calls

The pilot could replace the current co-responder program, Council Member Steve Fletcher said

As Minneapolis debates the city's future of policing, several city council members have expressed support for a new program that would send mental health professionals instead of police officers to certain calls for service. 

The program would build off the city's current co-responder program, in which mental health professionals respond with police officers to behavioral crisis calls, Council Member Steve Fletcher said. 

Since the city council's formation of a task force to review 911 calls a year ago, that coalition has researched and recently recommended that the city pilot sending only mental health professionals to those same kinds of crisis calls, Fletcher said.

In addition to Fletcher, Council Members Cam Gordon, Lisa Bender, Andrew Johnson, and Linea Palmisano have publicly stated support for this idea. Fletcher said Council Members Jeremy Schroeder and Phillipe Cunningham have also expressed support. 

Meanwhile, a growing number of small business owners and workers are pushing for the same concept — which they call a Mobile Mental Health Emergency Response Team.

"I'm really happy that Fair State and all of these small businesses banded together and added their voices to this conversation. They’re saying, there’s a lot of times that we’re calling for help and the police doesn't give us the help we need," Fletcher said. "I think that perspective is really missing sometimes in the conversation."

Anna Schmitz, who works as a community manager for Fair State Brewing Cooperative, said the idea started with conversations among staff at her brewery. Afterwards, she drafted a letter of support for the concept, which she learned about from the local advocacy organization Communities Against Police Brutality.

She garnered signatures from around a dozen businesses before launching it via Google Docs last week. Since then, the letter has accrued over 80 more signatures, with a total of 99 businesses on board. 

"We thought it was relevant for us to talk about as a business in part because [George Floyd] was murdered after a small business called the police. It's a horrible position for that employee to be in," Schmitz said. "It’s something that we wanted to really think about, and engage with critically; to think about: OK, well what is our responsibility in situations where we’re calling police? What can we do to minimize that as much as possible, so that we can hopefully avoid creating situations like that in the future?”

In June, Fair State Brewing Cooperative held meetings with staff to discuss these questions, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that it would be best for Minneapolis to follow in the steps of cities such as Denver, Colorado, and Eugene, Oregon, and create an option for people to call just a mental health professional, without also calling for an armed police officer, Schmitz said. 

"There are many questions about policing in Minneapolis that are complicated. This is a question that is simple: if someone is nonviolent, unarmed, and experiencing a mental health crisis, who should respond?," Schmitz said in a public hearing Monday. "Over 500 Minneapolis residents and 99 small businesses agree that unarmed mental health professionals, not police, should respond to those calls." 

Schmitz said she and her colleagues have felt the need for a trained behavioral or mental health professional to step in primarily when trying to ask someone to leave the taproom because of disruptive behavior, which can stem from a range of causes.

"Those are the situations where we’d really benefit from this kind of response — where the person is not dangerous, is not armed, is not violent, but causing a significant disruption to service," Schmitz said. "When we’re hiring taproom staff, we’re hiring them to provide service and pour beers; we’re not hiring them to have to get someone to physically leave our space. Those are different skills. And really, what you need in a lot of those situations is a trained professional." 

Minneapolis data show the third most common reason residents call 911 is a mental health crisis. Officers spend an average of 44 minutes on these calls. 

Since its 2017 pilot in Minneapolis, the co-responder program has shown the benefits of having a mental health professional dispatched to crises, Fletcher said, which is part of his case for having a program that doesn't also send officers.  

"By sending a mental health professional, we are getting better outcomes. We’re getting a lot fewer arrests, a lot less use of force, a lot of better overall outcomes," Fletcher said. "So that's great, and the other question you have to ask is: what kind of support does that mental health professional need? Do they need the law enforcement officer with the weapons next to them? What we’ve found, and what a lot of cities have found is that for a huge percentage of calls, they don't." 

The presence of an armed police officer often has the potential to escalate tensions in the situation, Fletcher said. He would prefer a model that allows mental health professionals to choose whether they want a police officer to accompany them. 

In Eugene, Oregon, mental health professionals called for police backup in just one percent of its responses in 2019. The 30-year-old program, called Cahoots, dispatches its mental health workers through the same 911 system as the Eugene Police Department. It took about 1/5 of total 911 calls, or 24,000 calls, in 2019. 

Likewise, in September, the Denver Post reported that since its pilot program began in June, mental health professionals did not opt for police support for any calls. 

Fletcher said that the pilot program recommended by the 911 Task Force would pair mental health responders with an Emergency Medical Technician and dispatch them to calls in certain precincts during the day, calling for about $500,000 in the budget, he said. 

Instead, Fletcher says he wants to see a larger pilot program that encompasses a broader area during longer hours, which would cost around $2.5 million. 

"We just feel like we’re not going to learn enough from the small pilot they’re doing, and frankly, want to get the implementation as soon as possible," he said.

In both versions, funding would likely have to come from the police department budget, Fletcher said, adding that the program would be lifting time consuming calls from officers' plates. He said the funding could also come from the budget for the co-responder program, which could be replaced with this program as a new version. 

"I would say that the question is, are we going to do a smaller version like what the task force recommended in their presentation, or are we going to do something bigger? I don't think there’s a lot of energy around, 'Don't do it at all,'" Fletcher said. "I think almost everybody is supportive of some version of this."

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