Preparedness & Recovery

New St. Paul Mental Health Officers Look at Policing Differently

In the past decade, calls to St. Paul police involving mental health issues have doubled.

by Mara H. Gottfried, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. / April 2, 2018
PA Wire/PA Images

(TNS) - “There’s a man with a gun trying to hurt me!” a terrified St. Paul man told a 911 operator.

Officers rushed to his residence, but they found no sign of a gunman.

After the 54-year-old man dialed 911 on a few other days, reporting the same scenario, Sgt. Jamie Sipes responded to one of the calls. Sipes coordinates the police department’s new mental health unit.

After talking with the man, Sipes learned he has a diagnosed mental illness that includes hallucinations. When the halluciations happen, the man said, they’re so frightening that all he can think to do is call the police for help.

St. Paul police formally started its mental health unit in March, and Sipes said people like the 911 caller are among those they will try to help.

In the past decade, calls to St. Paul police involving mental health issues have doubled. By devoting a unit to mental health issues, St. Paul police aim to connect people with community resources, reduce escalations that could end in police using deadly force, and ultimately cut down on the need for officers to be called for crisis situations.

About 30 percent of the people fatally shot by police in Minnesota between 2004 and 2016 were diagnosed as having a mental illness or had exhibited signs of mental illness.

‘WE WANT TO BE INVOLVED BEFORE THERE’S A CRISIS’

When tragedies happen — whether it’s violence in the community or an officer-involved shooting — people have questions and “law enforcement has a responsibility to answer some of those questions,” Sipes said. “We want to be involved in the conversation before there’s a crisis situation and to be ensuring that people are getting the resources that they need.”

Former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman proposed adding to the police budget for this year to increase the department’s authorized strength. The city council approved the move, which allowed four officers to be dedicated to the mental health unit.

They went through intensive training in the beginning of March and then began their work.

The officers spend part of each day reviewing recent mental health-related reports that patrol officers responded to. They’re looking into whether they can follow up with the individual or their family to ensure they know about available mental health services.

The mental health officers also are listening to emergency radio traffic and responding to some calls as they happen.

St. Paul police already team up on some calls with Ramsey County’s mobile crisis team, but the mental health officers will be looking for ways to partner more with social workers or other mental health professionals.

“This is new to law enforcement, and we’ve been thinking outside the box of what we can do to help people get connected with services, keep them in their homes, keep them stable and reduce those police calls for service, reduce those EMS runs to the hospital and reduce those emergency department visits,” Sipes said.

MENTAL HEALTH CALLS ON THE RISE

Sipes said one question he hears from fellow officers and community members is, “Why are police getting more involved in an area that is traditionally a social work area?”

He says people often call 911 when someone is having a mental health crisis and they don’t know what else to do.

“The reality is police are first-responders and they need to respond to anything,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Minnesota chapter. “What we want to do is to make sure we have the best outcome, and (the mental health unit) is certainly one way to do that. We want officers to know that there’s more than just bringing someone to an emergency room, that they really know the wide range of options and know what to tell the family.”

When mental health officers recently responded to a woman outside a St. Paul home — who reported that a relative made threats of harming himself several days earlier — one officer told her about the Ramsey County crisis hotline. She could call the hotline if his threats of self-harm continue.

“I told her, ‘We’re kind of this bridge between some mental health resources, and I would encourage you to touch base with Ramsey County Crisis because they have a lot of good programs,'” said Justin Tiffany, one of the mental health officers.

In 2016, St. Paul police received 8,704 mental health calls for service, compared with 4,122 in 2004, according to police department statistics.

Sipes has theories about the increases.

“I think one of it is we, as a society, have really worked hard to decrease the stigma of mental illness,” Sipes said. “I think people in general are talking about it more, recognizing those issues more, and that includes our officers potentially documenting it more.”

BEYOND TEMPORARY FIXES


Police officers have traditionally responded to mental health calls with quick fixes.

For example: Negotiating with a person to move him or her to safety from a bridge’s ledge and then getting the person to the hospital — because officers have to move on to the next emergency call.

But Sipes said the department has been looking at how officers can spend more time helping after the immediate crisis is over.

Because most of St. Paul’s patrol officers have gone through 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Team training, the mental health officers’ expertise wouldn’t necessarily be needed on crisis calls that officers respond to daily, Sipes said.

The department also has a crisis negotiation team, which Sipes is a member of, for the most pressing situations.

Instead, Sipes plans for mental health officers to be communicating with people in the days after they initially have police contact or get out of the hospital.

They’re putting together small fliers explaining the new mental health unit. Organizations that work with people who are mentally ill will hand out the fliers to their clients.

“We want them to know we’re a different kind of police — we’re not the police that arrest, we’re not the police that write tickets; we’re the police that do follow up and call you and say: ‘Hey, how are you doing today? Are you taking your medications? Have you seen your case manager recently? How did that go?’ ” Sipes said, adding they’re aiming to counter fear that people may have.

Various groups have lent support to the officers as they built the unit, particularly Regions Hospital and the nonprofit People Incorporated, Sipes said.

Jill Wiedemann-West, chief executive of People Incorporated Mental Health Services, said her nonprofit has been discussing with St. Paul police whether they could provide a social worker or therapist to respond to calls with the department’s mental health officers.

INCREASED FOCUS ON MENTAL HEALTH IN RECENT YEARS

St. Paul police have been focused on mental health for the past few years.

Since March 2016, some calls to 911 in Ramsey County concerning mental health problems, which don’t involve a crime or immediate safety risk, are instead referred to the county’s mental health crisis line. Mental health professionals provide in-person assessments and assistance over the phone.

The county’s mobile crisis team and the emergency response system’s collaborative work has continued to grow, said Alyssa Conducy, Ramsey County manager for adult mental health and chemical health services.

In 2015, there were 27 crisis assessments completed as the result of first-responders identifying the need for services.

That number increased to 104 in 2016, and grew to 147 in 2017.

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