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Early in his career, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie learned to recognize and navigate mental health crisis calls — but not how to keep them from coming in repeatedly.

“We’re clearly not the people that manage the mentally ill,” Leslie said. “But by default, because we’re available, we get the calls.”

Dakota County officials are working to get people with mental illness the help they need before those calls are made — or if the calls do come in, to make sure that officers know what to do.

The initiative, involving stakeholders from care providers to sheriff’s deputies, comes at a time when efforts to reduce contact between people with mental illness and the criminal justice system are getting national attention — and resources.

In the United States, 64 percent of inmates in local jails have a mental illness, and 68 percent have a substance abuse disorder, according to a White House news release.

Those inmates typically can’t get the right treatment in jail, and they tend to be incarcerated longer.

Sometimes, encounters with law enforcement can be deadly: In Minnesota, at least 45 percent of the people who have died in forceful encounters with law enforcement since 2000 had a history of mental illness or were in the throes of a mental health crisis, the Star Tribune reported in June.

In Dakota County, about 9 percent of the jail population spends more than 30 days there, and accounts for more than 40 percent of the operating budget. Of that 9 percent, more than half are inmates with mental health or chemical health issues.

After a jail survey in 2014, Dakota County officials started formulating a plan. Then they learned about the Data-Driven Justice Initiative — a White House effort to collect data on people who have a lot of contact with law enforcement, emergency departments and other services, then use that information to connect those individuals with better resources.

Nearly 70 cities, counties and states are participating in the initiative. In Minnesota, Dakota, Ramsey and Winona counties have signed on.

Potential solutions

Terry Wasnick started showing signs of mental health issues after traumatic brain injuries at ages 5 and 19.

The first time the police came, she was curled up in a ball in her bedroom, deeply depressed. An officer asked Wasnick some questions, then offered a choice: She could go to the hospital in an ambulance, or her dad could take her there. She chose her dad.

Fifteen years later, the police were called again. That time, Wasnick was taken to a hospital she didn’t like, despite her objections.

“I don’t recall them really talking to me or asking questions; it was more like they were talking around me,” she said. “And I really wasn’t involved in the decision.”

Wasnick spent hours in the emergency room and more than two weeks in the hospital, and ended up losing her job as a result.

Part of the Dakota County initiative is to train law enforcement officers how to respond to mental health crises. The Sheriff’s Office has requested a budget increase to provide across-the-board crisis intervention training over three years. There are also plans to hire a licensed mental health practitioner who will oversee how people with mental illness are treated when they come to the Dakota County jail.

In the meantime, county officials are figuring out how to prevent those calls to 911 in the first place. That includes advocating for access to mental health records in order to track individuals, organizing an Innovations Council to brainstorm solutions, and working to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, so that people come forward and seek out help before a crisis.

“When people wait too long to step forward, then the first point of contact … is that 911 crisis call,” said Angela Lockhart, who coordinates the county initiative. “And that’s not the point of entry that we want.”

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509