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ST. CLOUD, Minn. — After years of working to create a new way to respond to mental health calls, a team of police and community partners is showing results just a few months after its inception.

The St. Cloud-area co-responder team, which began working at the end of March, pairs a mental health professional and a St. Cloud police officer to help with mental health calls.

"We're dealing with those that are in crisis, like an acute crisis at the time, and trying to bring resources to them," said St. Cloud officer Kelly Holden.

Her partner, Kenzie Janson-Wolle, is a mental health professional with Central Minnesota Mental Health Center.

When responding to a call, Holden ensures the situation is safe before Janson-Wolle provides mental health evaluations.

Responding to mental health calls in this way benefits the whole community, leaders say.

"It's the right thing to do," St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson told the St. Cloud Times.

Police picking people up to go the emergency room for an evaluation or to jail only kept them "on the merry-go-round," Anderson said, and was not providing the services people needed.

"When we looked around and looked at the number of calls that were taken with people who were in the throes of a mental health crisis, we just realized we needed to do something differently than what we were doing," Anderson said.

Janson-Wolle and Holden work 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

How it works

Before the team formed, people in a crisis often were brought to St. Cloud Hospital.

"Overwhelmingly, those people don't meet the criteria for psychiatric hospitalization, and thus were often released back into the community within hours, only in some cases to intersect with law enforcement again later" said Rick Lee, executive director of Central Minnesota Mental Health Center.

With the co-responder team, evaluations are done on-scene to connect people with proper resources, which can include primary care, social services, chemical and mental health treatment and housing services.

Holden said officers may frequently see behavioral health calls, but they are not mental health experts. With a mental health professional responding, clinical decisions can be made in the field.

Janson-Wolle graduated from University of Denver with a master's degree in social work. She is a licensed independent clinical social worker and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. She also has a certificate in animal-assisted social work.

That is part of what makes the team great, according to Janson-Wolle — providing help in areas that police do not have the same level of expertise.

"Officers aren't getting that same amount of education .... but they're still being asked to do similar things," Janson-Wolle said.

According to Holden, that specialization is important in affecting change.

"Our goal is to actually do something to help that person have a better life, not just for a few hours," Holden said, "but in the future too."

The team works slowly and methodically to dig into the underlying issues of each call. One call can take three or four hours.

"I've been an officer for 15 years, but this a completely different shift — a completely different way of looking at police work, a different way of doing things," Holden said. "And I love it. "

The co-responder team was a next step from the Community Action Team, a joint effort of service providers from the area, such as human services, CentraCare Health, law enforcement, and Central Minnesota Mental Health Center.

Funds for the team came from organizations such as CentraCare, Central Minnesota Mental Health Center, Stearns County Human Services and the police department.

The mental health part of the program costs about $125,000 per year, according to Lee, but that does not cover the costs with the police department.

The team began operating at the end of March, about when the state shut down to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, work to bring the model to St. Cloud dates back a few years.

Janson-Wolle worked as a co-responder in Denver, where a group from St. Cloud traveled to learn more about that model.

"It worked. That's what I liked about it most," Anderson said. "You could see the results they had. "

Janson-Wolle, whose hometown is St. Cloud, moved back to Minnesota as the team was being created here.

Melissa Huberty, administrator of Stearns County Human Services, said the funding the county has put in is seen as an investment.

Huberty, a licensed mental health professional, said the department allocated around $80,000 for one-time funding for the team.

"It not only saves dollars in the community, but it is also a very humane way to treat people with mental health issues," Huberty said.

Between the co-responder model and the Community Action Team, Central Minnesota is focusing on prevention, or helping people before they go to the emergency room or jail.

"It reduces trauma to the individual and their families," Huberty said. "It's the right way to do things, but it also saves taxpayer dollars."

It saves money by providing services to people before they get in "deep end crises," Huberty said, such as going to the emergency room or being civilly committed, which are expensive.

Even though work to bring the team to St. Cloud began years ago, long before the current police reform movement, the co-responder team "is absolutely a kind of police reform that's being talked about all over the country right now," Lee said.

What does success look like?

For those involved with the team, success comes in different forms.

In terms of data, Janson-Wolle and Holden said success is a decrease in the number of people sent to the hospital.

According to Lee, there is already around a 30% reduction in the number of those cases that would have gone to the emergency room if the team was not available.

Success can also mean getting someone set up with housing so they have time to focus on mental health instead of where they sleep, Holden said.

For Huberty, success means serving people in the least traumatic way. And in the long run, success can come in the form of education.

"Everybody I feel like benefits from talking back and forth," Janson-Wolle said. She said she shares her knowledge with other officers about symptoms and resources. She also supports the officers with what they experience and need, too.

"If we're having these conversations with people, we're touching all those areas and giving them the opportunity to do better," Janson-Wolle said.

Looking forward, the plan is to expand the team in St. Cloud to provide 24/7 coverage, Anderson said.

"That's the beauty of what we do in in St. Cloud and Central Minnesota," Anderson said.

"We figure out creative ways to solve problems that are plaguing all of us."