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How co-responder teams are changing the way Minneapolis police deal with mental health calls

Though the program is currently operating as a pilot, it is on track to grow in 2019, thanks to money set aside in the city’s 2019 budget. 

Officer Colleen Ryan and social worker Nils Dybvig
Officer Colleen Ryan and social worker Nils Dybvig are a part of the MPD’s co-responder program that pairs police officers with mental-health professionals to help people on the verge of suicide or addressing other emotional crises.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

Watching the 911 dashboard, Officer Colleen Ryan saw it again: The address of a woman who calls Minneapolis police frequently during bursts of life-threatening anxiety.

Ryan notified her partner — a social worker — and the two drove to the woman in an unmarked police car. No sirens. No flashing lights. But this time around, Ryan wanted to do something different to help the woman, beyond their typical routine of giving her a ride to a hospital.

So Ryan and her partner sat down with the woman … and played a game of Yahtzee. And after 45 minutes of rolling the dice, the woman felt comfortable describing to Ryan and the social worker — a duo formally known as a mental-health co-responder team — her feelings. From there, the team shared tips and resources with the woman if, or when, anxiety overcomes her again.

“Now, she has a toolbox, and things that she can do differently, so that maybe she doesn’t need to make that call. She doesn’t need to be seen at a hospital time and time again. She recognizes that. But she didn’t have any other options,” said Inspector Kathy Waite, who supervises MPD’s co-responder program that pairs police officers with mental-health professionals to help people on the verge of suicide or addressing other emotional crises.

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Right now, the program is operating as a pilot. It features two officers and two social workers, and its budget only allows the service in certain parts of the city — MPD’s third and fifth precincts, or south Minneapolis — which is where the department says it receives the most calls of people in emotional distress.

But the program is on track to grow. The Minneapolis City Council set aside money in the city’s 2019 budget so that the co-responder can become permanent and expand to all precincts this year.

“It’s not a crime to have a mental illness and approaching [people] in a way that’s not criminalizing them, and making them afraid to call 911 and get help, is the biggest thing,” Ryan said. “It’s a more comprehensive approach to mental-health calls, rather than cops also having to double as social workers and figure out these problems.”

How it works

Ryan, 26, and her partner, senior psychiatric social worker Nils Dybvig, begin each day at the program’s headquarters, inside the MPD’s Fifth Precinct station.

They start by going over 911 calls from the night before, looking for ones in MPD’s system with the label “EDP,” or “emotionally disturbed person.” Dybvig circles back with those cases, sometimes calling the patients, their relatives or case workers, to make sure everyone is on the same page about the previous night’s incident.

That process of following-up is among reasons the program differs from the department’s other work, Waite told City Council members late last year at a committee meeting to discuss the program’s results and funding.

Throughout the day, the co-responder team monitors the city’s 911 calls on computers at their shared cubicle. Dispatchers answer each caller and recite a script that helps them categorize what’s going on, take into consideration if weapons are involved or if anyone is facing imminent harm.

When dispatchers decide a call has a “mental health component,” Dybvig and Ryan — who wears navy pants and polos instead of a typical police uniform — take action. Most EDP callers are people considering suicide, and very few include weapons, program leaders said.

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“A lot of times it’s the child not taking their meds or not having the proper resources,” Ryan said. “We have a lot of people calling on themselves saying they’re feeling suicidal and want to go to the hospital. … And then a lot of programs will call us and say this client is acting radically and not on their meds and they need to go to the hospital. It’s a wide variety.”

Two regular patrol officers usually respond to the 911 call first. They scope out the scene — typically a home, workplace or area of a street — to see if it’s safe for someone like Dybvig, who is unarmed and does not have police training, to enter.

By that time, the co-responder team has usually arrived. Their next steps vary, case-by-case. But often they start by taking an assessment of the distressed person’s feelings by asking some questions, Dybvig said.

“‘Have you thought about how you might harm yourself?” for example.

Or, said Dybvig: “If you’re feeling stressed, who do you talk to? Do you have a religious belief that’s going to keep you safe or prevent you from harming yourself? When people are more experiencing psychosis, you know, just asking them questions — ‘Are you sleeping at night? Are you eating?’ … Is this person safe, and how can we make sure that this person is able to take care of themself, or do they need to go to the hospital to be safe?”

The team may also get other people involved — such as therapists, physicians, relatives or friends — and give the patient a ride to somewhere other than a hospital. Sometimes, the lack of transportation to a safe space in and of itself triggers someone’s breakdown and call to police, Waite said.

“We can really take the time to listen to somebody; hear what they’re going through; help them feel a little bit understood …. like they have somebody who just cares about them,” Dybvig said. “It can make a big difference.”

The results

Minneapolis’ co-responder program has so far shown promising results, according to project leaders, and that’s why they are pushing for the expansion.

MPD co-responders have contacted 985 people dealing with some sort of emergency mental-health issue — 843 adults and 142 children — between fall 2017 and fall 2018, according to data provided by MPD. And among those, more than 260 people calmed down in their home or workplace after talking to the social workers and officers, meaning they declined trips to the hospital and saved the department resources.

City of Minneapolis
(In two cases, however, the patients attempted assaulting officers, so the police used “take-down” techniques to stop them, Waite said. Both she and Ryan said the program has a goal of zero use-of-force incidents going forward. “Those were unavoidable, but the patient wasn’t hurt,” Ryan said.)

Law-enforcement agencies in cities such as Seattle, Boston and Houston have adopted similar co-responder models to change how officers interact with people suffering from extreme anxiety, depression or psychosis. St. Paul set aside additional money in its 2019 budget to strengthen how mental-health experts work with police, too.

What’s next

Ryan is one of two sworn officers who make up MPD’s co-responder program currently, out of the department’s some 860 cops.

But last month, the Minneapolis City Council boosted the program’s funding by $348,000 in the city’s 2019 budget. That money will allow existing sworn officers to move from their current jobs to form new co-responder teams so the service can expand citywide.

The City Council also agreed this budget cycle to convene a new group of city staff and community members to study characteristics of 911 calls. The group will determine if, or when, there’s opportunity for civilians — not police officers — to respond to some.

For example, some people in emotional distress may benefit from Hennepin County’s 24/7 crisis-intervention program, called “COPE” (Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies), the agency that contracts with MPD to provide staffing for the co-responder program, rather than police. The group will study whether certain 911 calls in Minneapolis could transfer to such programs. (COPE’s phone number for issues involving adults is 612-596-1223 and for those regarding children is 612-348-2233.)

Waite, who’s moved through the ranks of MPD over 25 years, said she felt the need for police-sponsored mental-health help as a beat cop and crisis negotiator years ago. She and others once helped a suicidal man step down from the ledge of a bridge. After talking to him, they sent him to the hospital before leaving the scene. But later that day, 911 dispatchers received another suicidal caller: It was the same man, on a different bridge.

He survived, but the anecdote emphasizes the need for close — and frequent — contact with people who are struggling with emergency mental-health issues, according to Waite. “There’s a gap in services,” she said. “We want to be able to follow up on those cases, and that’s something that the co-responder team does.”