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Will Minneapolis alternative policing pilots become permanent?

Activists are encouraged their ideas are being piloted but want to see long-term funding. City officials say some programs are moving in that direction. 

Two Minneapolis Behavioral Crisis Response agents
Two Minneapolis Behavioral Crisis Response agents are seen in a video released recently as part of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety campaign. Behavioral Crisis Response agents are unarmed and sent by 911 dispatchers into situations in which there is no medical emergency and no violence. The program is among the alternative policing initiatives the city is piloting.
Screen shot

The city of Minneapolis in recent weeks has been promoting the variety of alternative policing initiatives it’s testing following demands from residents to prevent harm by police while also addressing increased crime.

Brian Smith
Brian Smith
“There are plenty of responses that require police,” said Brian Smith, director of the Office of Performance and Innovation, in one of the city’s “Reimagining Public Safety” videos posted on YouTube. “But there are a ton of responses that don’t require an armed officer to show up.” 

“We want to make sure whatever response people get, that it’s not one that introduces more harm into a situation but one that puts the public at ease and they feel like they can trust,” Smith adds in the video. 

MinnPost reviewed City Council presentations and checked in with Smith, Mayor Jacob Frey and others at the city to see how the pilot projects are going. And we asked activists on both sides of last fall’s failed Minneapolis police replacement ballot measure – including a former mayor and a former mayoral candidate – how they view the city’s efforts thus far. 

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All expressed optimism that the city is giving the unarmed response pilots a chance. But there were also concerns over whether the city would invest in unarmed response programs long-term.  

The origins of unarmed response

Even as the political battle over the Minneapolis Police Department’s existence picked up steam last year, the city was already engaged in experimenting with unarmed public safety services. 

Then this year, after the vote to get rid of MPD failed — but still tallied more than 40,000 votes in support of a new public safety department — city officials gathered all the scattered unarmed pilots into one package so that they all could be evaluated together.

Some of the same activists who pushed for the charter amendment vote to dissolve the Minneapolis Police Department point out they had pushed years earlier to shift some responsibilities away from armed police officers. 

Sheila Nezhad
Sheila Nezhad
Activists from organizations like Reclaim the Block and former mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad – though slightly miffed by what they see as a lack of credit being paid to them for their ideas – wondered whether investments in unarmed response will last. That remains to be seen. But this spring, city staff gave the Minneapolis City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee an update

In the 2021 budget, around $3 million was set aside for work related to the unarmed proposals being done by the Office of Performance and Innovation and the Regulatory Services Department. Behavioral Crisis Response – which sends unarmed agents to certain mental health calls – was among the programs funded.

In Frey’s recently proposed biennial 2023-2024 budget, he recommends expanding the Behavioral Crisis Response program with an allocation of $1.45 million in 2023 and $2.9 million in 2024. 

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To put those numbers into context, the police department’s budget this year was $196 million, and similar amounts would be allocated under Frey’s proposal for 2023-2024. 

Nonemergency unarmed response pilots

The unarmed response pilots were split up into two groups: nonemergency and emergency response.

Nonemergency calls include report-only calls — like when someone calls about stolen items and needs a police report for insurance purposes — and traffic calls like parking complaints. 

This began in June 2021, when 911 started transferring parking complaints and calls that only involve filing a police report to 311, the service that handles all other calls from residents. Since then, thousands of calls, over 4,000 as of this spring, have been transferred to 311. 

City staff say they expect such calls to continue to increase as residents become more aware of their options. An online option was also provided for requesting a police report, and has seen increased popularity, 311 interim operations co-manager Rebecca Sandell told members of the council’s Public Health and Safety Committee in April. 

“This trend aligns with the community engagement research done by the [Office of Performance and Innovation] in 2020 that showed a preference for more online options for filing issues with 311,” she said.

For parking complaints, the city in October 2021 launched an overnight parking traffic control pilot that provided an unarmed response for parking and traffic issues from 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. 

Ahmed Adow, director of traffic control, said that, though a lot of people aren’t aware that traffic control is now 24/7, traffic control agents have responded to late-night calls to nearly 40 percent of the neighborhoods in the city — a rate he believes will spike when more people are aware of the service. 

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Ward 13 City Council member Linea Palmisano asked how long city staff will collect data before making conclusions on the traffic pilot. Regulatory Services department director Saray Garnett-Hochuli said staffers need a year to test a pilot, meaning it won’t be until October of this year before lasting decisions are made regarding unarmed overnight traffic control. 

Council member Linea Palmisano
Council member Linea Palmisano
In an interview, Gina Obiri, a program manager for the Office of Performance and Innovation, said the city is considering “embedding” mental health practitioners with 911. She said there are multiple ways that could play out. 

One option is to have a mental health staffer help 911 with residents who call frequently and have an issue that doesn’t require an agent to respond in person. “This would prevent an in-person response from having to go out if a person with more specialized mental health training could provide resources” over the phone, said Obiri. 

Behavioral Crisis Response staff on the floor of 911 could also help with distressed callers who might benefit from talking with someone with mental health training, “opening up time for officers and 911 to handle more urgent calls,” Obiri said. The mental health dispatcher would begin the paperwork on the phone that officers could return to. 

Gina Obiri
Gina Obiri
In any case, mental health professionals working with 911 would defer to the dispatchers, Obiri said. “They are the experts in their department,” she said, adding that any addition of mental health staff would “make sure” that their influence on the department includes changes that 911 dispatchers “would be excited about.” 

Emergency unarmed response pilots

The emergency pilots address mental health calls. There is a pilot for how the city fields mental health calls, and another for the service the city provides. 

“This combination of pilots is aimed at giving community members the most supportive experience possible when they are requesting emergency services for a mental crisis, all the way from before a call begins to when responders arrive,” Obiri said during the spring committee meeting.

Dispatchers for 911 are undergoing mental health training and mental health professionals are being brought in. When a mental health call comes in that doesn’t pose an immediate risk, an unarmed Behavioral Crisis Response agent heads to the scene. 

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A call eligible for Behavioral Crisis Response involves behavioral or mental health crises where there is no medical emergency, no weapons involved and no violence has occurred or is occurring. That can include severe intoxication. 

Behavioral Crisis Response agents are dispatched through 911. The new first responder division, staffed with help from Canopy Mental Health & Consulting, operates 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday, with two separate teams on duty per shift. 

Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah
Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah
Ward 2 City Council Member Robin Wonsley said during the spring committee meeting that she is interested in learning what it would take to make the service 24/7, relaying a personal experience when she called 911 in early April to report a mental health crisis. 

“I had a loved one who suffered a mental health crisis on a Sunday,” Wonsley said. “There was racial trauma present and, I’m not gonna front, there was lots of anxiety for me having to call 911 knowing an armed officer was going to show up and things could go differently. When I expressed that to the 911 dispatcher their only response was, ‘Can you wait until tomorrow?’”

Taylor Crouch-Dodson, another program manager for the Office of Performance and Innovation, said that there are plans to make the mental health response pilot a nonstop service. Smith, the Office of Performance and Innovation director,  said a primary impediment to launching nonstop service is finding people with the training and skills to respond to mental health calls. 

Another issue pinpointed by Smith and his staff was the need for more vans for Behavioral Crisis Response staff. 

Between Dec. 12, 2021, and March 31, 2022, Behavioral Crisis Response agents responded to approximately 100 calls a week and served every precinct, ward and neighborhood in the city. Over that time period, there were about 77 calls a week that were not handled by Behavioral Crisis Response agents.

Of the 1,655 calls over that time period, Minneapolis police provided backup to Behavioral Crisis Response agents 12 percent of the time. And about 11 percent of the calls to Behavioral Crisis Response came from MPD officers calling for backup. 

“Feedback from the rank-and-file officers has been very positive,” said Minneapolis police deputy chief Eric Fors at the spring council committee update, adding that officers are looking forward to 24/7 service. “They’ve been very appreciative of having the BCR units respond on calls and be an additional resource.” 

In an interview, Smith said that, though he appreciates the calls for more vans and greater investment in the BCR initiative, it’s best for the program to grow slowly. 

“We still have so much to learn. We don’t want to go from two vans to five vans and find out that we needed to tweak something first. As much as we appreciate what community members are saying, what our partners are saying, we still know we need to do this the right way. Jumping out too fast could undermine the whole thing,” Smith said. 

Unarmed response as meeting abolitionists in the middle? 

Though the vote to get rid of MPD was unsuccessful, the debate made city officials realize that there are forms of public safety where an armed police officer is not at the center of the response and that those modes of enforcement should be explored, said former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton

“I absolutely think the city is moving in the right direction,” said Sayles Belton, who opposed dissolving MPD last fall. 

Sayles Belton currently works in government affairs and community relations for Thomson Reuters, which has partnered with GreenLight Fund Twin Cities to bring a community-involved approach to reduce police interactions for low-level offenses in the Lake Street corridor. 

Simone Hardeman-Jones
Simone Hardeman-Jones
“We don’t want to call law enforcement for everything, especially for things that are rooted in other issues and don’t need law enforcement involvement,” said GreenLight Twin Cities executive director Simone Hardeman-Jones. “We also heard from law enforcement, ‘We don’t want to have to respond; we have other things going on and there are personnel issues.’”

GreenLight Twin Cities announced they are going to deploy a method, known as Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD), that establishes a network of community members who will contact GreenLight when someone in the neighborhood commits low-level crimes like stealing food or trespassing while trying to sleep or find shelter. 

For example, if a business owner sees a homeless person, one they see often sneaking into their store to steal something they need, the business owner calls GreenLight Twin Cities, who then sends people who have resources for the unhoused person. 

Sayles Belton said these efforts to limit unnecessary interaction with armed officers “demonstrates the transformation we are making as a community and affirms the role and partnership in the public safety space.

“It’s still a public safety space, but the emphasis is shifting; the way we talk about it is shifting,” Sayles Belton said. 

Activists cautiously optimistic 

First off, the activists who thought up some of the unarmed programs would like a nod of acknowledgment. 

“Those new approaches to unarmed crises response and call management came directly out of community organizing led by Reclaim the Block, Black Visions, and The People’s Budget coalition,” said Sheila Nezhad, an activist and police abolitionist who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2021.

Nezhad said she considers the creation of the pilots from their community organizing as “one of the biggest successes of the organizing we’ve done over the past four years” – the result of efforts by hundreds of activists. 

She also pointed out that it was the previous City Council – before the 2021 election resulted in major turnover – that set unarmed response in motion, and she doubts the current council and mayor would have pursued it. “I do not think these changes would have come through this current council and mayor. I think they are benefiting from the work of primarily community members and Black staff who are leading the change within the Office of Performance and Innovation,” Nezhad said.

Nezhad said she is tentatively optimistic about the results of the pilot so far but isn’t holding her breath to see if the pilots become official programs that yield millions in long-term funding. She also called shifts in call management and mental health response the “bare minimum” of change that the city needs from law enforcement. 

“The changes haven’t gone far enough,” Nezhad said. 

D.A. Bullock, a member of Reclaim the Block, believes that the city packaged the unarmed pilots together in response to the tens of thousands of people who voted for dismantling MPD. 

“That’s still 44,000 votes in favor of that change,” said Bullock. “That’s important. Even if you are in denial (of the amount of political will in favor of dismantling MPD), you have to acknowledge (the vote total). Where there are people, there’s power. I think even the people who want to keep the power in the hands of a very small few, have to acknowledge (those votes), that people are not going to take this anymore.”

Bullock expressed skepticism that those who fought against amending the charter to replace the police department will support unarmed response beyond the pilots. 

“They’ve never come out and supported us when we are in budget fights to increase the Office of Violence Prevention budget. They were not there. They were only in support of maintaining the outsized investment in the Minneapolis Police Department. 

“I just want to make sure their rhetoric lines up with their actions and they don’t get the chance to sort of glom on for credit to something that is working despite their opposition,” Bullock said. 

Still, Bullock said he is optimistic about the mere presence of the unarmed pilot package. He also said he was encouraged by the preliminary results.

Bullock said, though, that he finds it troubling that unarmed modes of public safety need to be tested so slowly and thoroughly, with constant data collection and presentation — all before a full investment — while expensive police are funded without nearly the same scrutiny. 

“I challenge the Police Department. They never provide us with these proof-of-concept presentations. We just have to take it on faith that recruiting more officers … will result in an increase in public safety, even though we haven’t seen that and they haven’t provided any evidence,” he said.

City officials on alternative pilots

Mayor Frey said he believes that both sides – some activists and some city officials – are talking past one another. 

When it comes to providing alternative policing options, Frey said he and the activists who pushed for ‘dismantling’ the police department are on the “same page.” The difference being that Frey wants to add those programs to the city’s existing police department, instead of getting rid of traditional police. The primary reason Frey said he was against defunding MPD as outlined in the ballot question is because the new public safety department would answer to all 13 City Council members and the mayor. 

But, as far as integrating alternative programs – the exact programs that ‘dismantle’ activists thought up – Frey said he has been on board since his days as a City Council member. 

“I’m for bringing non-police traffic units to do traffic-related issues, I’m for providing a specific skill set in the form of mental health responders to the unique circumstances of mental health issues that happen on the ground,” Frey said. 

“That’s not a new position, that’s been my position all along. That has been a big part of why I have been pushing for an Office of Community Safety and a comprehensive approach to public safety where you can integrate all of these different responses under one roof. That, in my opinion, was the really positive and beneficial part of Question 2 that I think we should all be for. The reason I opposed it had nothing to do with that, I was always for that. The reason I opposed it was the 14 bosses,” Frey said. 

In Frey’s 2023-2024 budget recommendations, the increase in funding to the Behavioral Crisis Response is not pilot funding — he recommends making funding for mental health responders a permanent and recurring budget item. The funding would also make the response team 24/7. 

“Put the politics aside and look at the actions that are taken and look at the numbers in the budget … we are putting the funding in the budget in an ongoing fashion to bring services, for instance for mental health response, citywide, 24/7,” Frey said.

Council Vice President Palmisano said that while she opposed Question 2, she has supported co-responders — agents with non-lethal training who accompany armed officers — and other alternative responders before and after George Floyd’s murder. 

Palmisano said she was at Powderhorn Park the day nine of her City Council colleagues stood on a platform and vowed to ‘defund’ the police department. She refused to go on stage and make a similar commitment but said she was in the crowd, and subsequently, around the community, having conversations about ways to add alternative response options to the city’s public safety apparatus — without taking away funds or resources from police. 

Palmisano said that, throughout her nine years with the council, she has supported alternative response pilots, as long as they were not funded through taking money away from the police department. 

“I think what you do is you start (alternative pilots) in another way, you right-size it, and then you say, ‘Oh OK, do we have too much public safety around here? Officers are just sitting around? Great, let’s take some of this funding,’” Palmisano said. She added that she compliments the work that activists did to bring alternative policing ideas to city officials, and that she looks forward to continued conversations about a better and more varied public safety system. 

Frey said that the activists who came up with alternative policing models and pushed the city into piloting them should take credit and celebrate. He added that it’s OK for activists and city officials to see one another as allies in the effort to add alternative policing options. 

“It’s OK to agree,” Frey said. “On this issue — a big comprehensive approach — we all agree.”