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When the Minneapolis Police Department is called to respond to a mental health problem, dispatchers will soon have an alternative to sending sworn officers. City leaders recently announced a pilot program that will deploy civilian crisis teams to take care of certain types of emergencies.

It's a welcome move that holds promise to reduce the number of arrests, injuries and fatal shootings of people in crisis, while also freeing up time for officers to do other work. Instead of police, whose presence in uniform can make some situations worse, mobile response teams will take some behavioral health calls.Mental health advocates have long supported alternatives for situations that don't necessarily require armed responders.

At the same time, city and MPD leaders must make sure that dispatchers and other staff receive the proper training to evaluate calls. For example, officers will continue to be dispatched when a call involves weapons or violence.

To carry out the pilot program, the City Council approved a two-year, $6 million contract with Richfield-based Canopy Mental Health & Consulting, a majority Black-owned company. During a recent council meeting, Canopy's Jimmie Heags Jr. said the firm was founded last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest following George Floyd's murder. He said it focuses on "mental health needs of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] and other marginalized communities." The teams are expected to start next month.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota, pointed out that mobile teams are not new to Minnesota. There are already 34 mobile crisis teams in place statewide, and each county has a mental health crisis hotline.

Abderholden told an editorial writer that NAMI Minnesota led efforts to create a more diverse and informed mental health workforce and that her organization "strongly supports" providing culturally informed care. She also said existing programs are underfunded.

Abderholden added that Minneapolis officials need to explain the differences between this new effort and existing ones — including MPD co-responder dispatches and Hennepin County's Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies (COPE) for adults experiencing mental health emergencies.

Specialists are typically better trained than officers to recognize disorders and de-escalate situations involving mental illness. In some cases, alternative approaches can result in better outcomes for individuals during and after the incidents that prompt calls and can better connect those in need to the help they'll need going forward.

Successful alternative approaches also save money. NAMI reports that in 2016 the cost savings for crisis services was $102 per person served when hospitalization was avoided and $1,080 when a person wasn't arrested and was kept out of the criminal court system.

While it's well documented that most people with mental illness aren't violent or dangerous, they are too often treated as if they are. A Star Tribune analysis of all use-of-force deaths in Minnesota found that at least 45% of people killed by law enforcement since 2000 had a history of mental illness or were in a mental health crisis.

One of them was 36-year-old Travis Jordan, who was shot and killed by Minneapolis police in November 2018. Reportedly suicidal, Jordan was armed with a large knife and did not obey police orders to drop the weapon. His family members argued that police should have done more to de-escalate the situation, although the officers were cleared of wrongdoing.

Jordan's family lobbied for and won approval of legislation that supports MPD's new program. The 2021 Legislature passed a bill, named after Jordan, that requires 911 operators to refer mental health calls to mobile crisis teams "when appropriate."

As in Jordan's case and others, it's likely an armed officer would need to be dispatched when weapons are involved. Yet the Minneapolis program provides a promising alternative for handling many of the growing number of mental health calls in the city.