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All Minnesota law enforcement officers soon could be required to learn how to deal with people with mental illness and safely de-escalate crises, marking a shift in policing away from using force and toward less lethal ways to intervene.

A bill before the Legislature to boost police training by $7 million, which has bipartisan support, includes mandatory training in crisis intervention, conflict management and cultural issues for the state’s 10,500 officers.

Officers “need a better understanding of how to diffuse what are often tense situations,” said Andy Skoogman of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, which supports the bill.

Crisis training is getting renewed attention amid a rising number of mental-health-related calls, with officers on the front lines of responding to psychiatric disorders. According to a Star Tribune analysis last year, at least 45 percent of the people killed by police since 2000 had a history of mental illness or were in a mental health crisis. In 2015, nine of 13 people killed had a history of mental health issues.

Most states, including Minnesota, don’t require police officers to take crisis training. Past efforts to require it have failed, and local departments that want it must pay for most of it themselves — something more agencies are doing across the state to varying degrees.

“It is expensive training. The state needs to increase its investments; it can’t fall on all local government,” said Nathan Gove, executive director of the Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), which licenses officers in the state’s 439 agencies and supports the bill.

While most people with mental illness aren’t violent or dangerous, police and mental health advocates agree that crisis training could prevent many deadly incidents and reduce the number of people with mental illness ending up in jail or emergency rooms.

Recent police shootings and millions of dollars spent on lawsuits have built momentum for the proposed crisis training requirement, said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, a retired law enforcement officer who chairs the House Public Safety Committee. “We’re not saying it will be a panacea, but I think it will be a step forward,” he said.

Cornish said that the House is expected to pass the omnibus public safety bill next week. It would require all officers to complete at least 16 hours of training on crisis intervention and mental illness, conflict management, and cultural issues within the three-year police licensing cycle.

Boosting training

For years, police have been required to undergo training only on use of force and emergency vehicle operation. Mental health advocates support the bill, though they note that it lacks clear rules such as those contained in last year’s Senate bill, which would have required four hours of mental health training, and details on how money would be spent.

“We would have liked something more specific,” said Sue Abderholden of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s still a step in the right direction.”

Cornish said that while many agencies are already training officers on mental illness, state funding would help smaller agencies afford it. He added that the training doesn’t suggest officers are doing anything wrong, but it shows they’re listening to community feedback.

Requiring training is “just going to become the standard,” said Michael Peterson, executive director of the Minnesota CIT Officer’s Association, one of the groups that trains local officers. “We’re slowly moving toward that. Finances can’t be the excuse anymore. The expense of not training people is more than training people.”

The Star Tribune found last year that, on average, nearly 15 percent of officers in the state’s 12 largest law enforcement agencies have done five-day crisis intervention team (CIT) training, considered the gold standard of the training.

Connect cops, social services

More police departments in Minnesota also are exploring pairing mental health professionals with officers to connect people who need help to social services.

A separate bill this session would fund a pilot program in Dakota County that would match a mental health professional with a CIT-trained Sheriff’s Office deputy to respond to mental health crises. The program, estimated to cost $400,000, is modeled after a Duluth program that was the first in Minnesota to embed a social worker with police.

Duluth’s program is being redesigned in May, with a licensed clinical social worker stationed at a transit center rather than in a squad car. “We’re trying different things because there’s such a gap in mental health,” said Linda Curran, St. Louis County’s adult mental health supervisor.

Minneapolis and St. Paul police are exploring the same co-responder model, and St. Paul has applied for a grant in hopes of starting a program in 2018. Many other cities and counties are teaming up police and crisis response workers on crisis calls.

“We need everyone working together,” Abderholden said.

The bill for Dakota County’s program hasn’t gotten a hearing, so county leaders are seeking grants in hopes of starting it this year. It would allow five cities to call on the co-responder team to take over or help on a crisis call. The Sheriff’s Office, which has seen mental health-related calls rise 50 percent since 2011, also has a $60,000 plan to train all 80 of its deputies in CIT by the end of 2019.

Retired nurse Kathy Czech started an advocacy group called STAMP Minnesota and has pushed agencies to start co-responder programs, which she said will save counties money by reducing jail and hospital costs. While CIT is necessary for police, she said, it shouldn’t be the only answer.

“The police get 40 hours of training, and you’re comparing that to four-plus years from a social worker. There’s no comparison,” Czech said.

“This is one of the tools in our toolbox,” Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said. “Jail was never designed to be a mental health treatment facility.”

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141