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SMART Center is one good solution to Minnesota's crisis-intervention training needs

Tim Leslie

Jillian Peterson and James Densley highlighted a critical issue in their March 23 Community Voices piece “Police crisis intervention training: We need a new paradigm, not a new building.”

Law enforcement officers throughout Minnesota, and across the country, must be well-equipped with effective training to help people they encounter who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

First responders increasingly find themselves on the front line of society’s struggle with mental illness. This includes police officers and sheriff’s deputies, but also firefighters, paramedics, school resource officers and others who respond in someone’s time of distress.

As Peterson and Densley pointed out, we in Dakota County are seeking state support this legislative session for construction of the proposed Safety and Mental Health Alternative Response Training (SMART) Center. MinnPost readers deserve to know how this regional project will help train law enforcement and others to respond to people in crisis.

I personally have witnessed how modern training in crisis-response soft skills that rely on illness recognition, communication and intervention has helped my deputies as well as local police officers to peacefully resolve calls involving the mentally ill. State lawmakers recognized the need for this training too. In 2017 they required all Minnesota licensed peace officers to complete 16 hours of training every three years in crisis intervention and mental illness crises training; conflict management and mediation; and community diversity, cultural differences and implicit bias. Lawmakers approved $24 million over four years to the Minnesota Board of Peace Officers Standards and Training to help pay for the training.

Many first responders already have received crisis response training. The nonprofit Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team is considered a leading provider of this training. They have trained more than 3,000 officers from dozens of agencies across the state.

That training has been done on location, with Minnesota CIT’s trainers packing up their equipment and hauling it around the state. That has worked, but the organization needs a permanent home to address first responders’ need for more comprehensive crisis response training and the ongoing need for continuing education opportunities for law enforcement and others.

The SMART Center would offer space for Minnesota CIT, and it would be home to other public safety initiatives that serve as resources to community partners. Our county Board of Commissioners believes so strongly in this project that it already budgeted $6.6 million toward construction of the facility, to be located in Inver Grove Heights. We are asking the state to contribute an equal $6.6 million in bond sale proceeds. We are not requesting that funding lawmakers already approved for crisis intervention training be re-allocated for construction of the SMART Center. Indeed, the SMART Center will help to make more effective use of those training dollars.

Our project has gained the support of roughly two dozen local, regional and state organizations representing law enforcement, the mental health community, business and others. We’re grateful for the support of advocates such as Sue Abderholden of NAMI Minnesota, and for the backing of a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Dakota County and elsewhere. Our project has been reviewed by members of the Senate and House Capital Investment committees this year, and we hope to gain their support.

The intersection of people in mental health crisis with police and other emergency responders is extremely complex and important for us to get right. Since Peterson and Densley’s column was published, Peterson and I have discussed crisis intervention training and our respective efforts. We came to agree rather quickly that there is room for both approaches in this rapidly changing, dynamic world of crisis response.

Tim Leslie is the Dakota County sheriff. He previously served as Dakota County chief deputy, worked in the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and was a member of the St. Paul Police Department.

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