Mental health teams roll in Minneapolis

Minneapolis has finally launched a long-awaited program to help citizens struggling with mental health crises. Starting this week, the city can send unarmed mental health professionals in place of police officers to certain types of calls.

Creating this service is an important step toward shifting some of the responsibilities out of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) so that sworn officers can focus more on violent crime investigations and building relationships with the community. Fundamental change can prevent injuries and save lives.

Successful alternative approaches also save money. A 2016 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) report showed that the cost savings for crisis services was $102 per person served when hospitalization was avoided and $1,080 when the person was not arrested and removed from the criminal court system.

As part of the Minneapolis City Council’s 2020 Safety for All plan, the city’s Office of Performance and Innovation (OPI) developed the program. It is backed by funds originally earmarked for Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) that have been moved to alternative public safety options. In July, OPI awarded Canopy Mental Health & Consulting a two-year, $6 million contract to program employees. It was supposed to start in August but faced delays.

Two-member teams can now be deployed to answer 911 calls about behavioral or mental health crises. Professionals will respond to calls in casual clothing, including a T-shirt emblazoned with Behavioral Crisis Response, with the Canopy Roots logo and city crests. This is important because the mere presence of a uniformed policeman can sometimes exacerbate a mental health crisis.

It’s important to note that teams will not be sent into calls that involve firearms or violent behaviour, according to an OPI press release. In recent years, cops and city leaders have repeatedly told the Star Tribune editorial board that it’s hard to keep up with the growth in mental health calls.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI in Minnesota, said the Minneapolis effort is a welcome addition to existing mental health response programs in the metropolitan area. She told an editorial that the city’s program is aligned with Hennepin County’s COPE (Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies) program, which sends teams into homes to help those with mental health issues.

AbdulHolden noted that MPD previously worked with COPE and that efforts were underfunded and understaffed even before the pandemic.

“There’s a great need — with COVID and other issues, more people are really suffering. I’ve had a lot of calls through NAMI from people who say they’re worried about calling 911” for fear of someone getting hurt if they do, she said.

Another good news for improving mental health responses this year is the passage of the Travis Act, named Travis Jordan, who was shot and killed by police three years ago after he approached officers with a large knife during a mental health call. This act requires dispatchers to direct certain mental health calls to crisis teams.

Earlier this year, the legislature created a 15-member working group to recommend statewide training and standards for 911 dispatchers, or “telecommunications.” The group must submit a report by January 15, 2022. In July, 988 will become the national suicide crisis hotline, making it easier for people to get help over the phone no matter where they are.

Getting the right kind of help for those in crisis — and maintaining it and the safety of responders — should be a priority. The new Minneapolis program, if implemented effectively, will help the city achieve this goal.

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