The Minneapolis City Council will vote on a new contract this week for the city's behavioral crisis response (BCR) team — that's a group of mental health workers who respond to some 911 mental health crisis calls instead of police.
The team received a pat on the back from the U.S. Department of Justice last month in its investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department. Mental health workers have responded to 12,000 calls since December 2021.
But team leaders say their success has been not because of the city, but in spite of it.
At a Monday meeting in front of the city’s Public Oversight Committee, BCR interim program manager Marissa Stevenson said the team has consistently been under resourced — first officing in a storage closet, and eventually a city building without heating or cooling.
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In a Tuesday conversation on Minnesota Now with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer, Gina Obiri said the BCR’s challenges have been somewhat of an open secret at City Hall.
Obiri is the program manager in the city’s Office of Performance and Innovation.
“They've been secret, but they have been challenges that I believe leadership have been aware of for quite some time, Obiri said. “And we have not had success in getting them addressed more effectively.”
The team’s pitch at Monday’s meeting was for stability. The BCR is contracted through mental health organization Canopy Roots. But their contracts with the city have been short-term. The current contract expires next month.
The U.S. Department of Justice singled out the program as one of the things Minneapolis is doing right to change its culture of public safety, and called for them to expand their work. The BCR is not part of the Minneapolis Police Department or even city employees. That has led to some friction.
Obiri said the team has had city staff and other organizations refuse to work with them — believing they wouldn’t be around much longer.
But she’s hoping the team receives a two-year contract extension at Thursday’s city council meeting — that they’ve been able to demonstrate their value for the city.
BCR is part of long-term culture shift. But Obiri said much larger changes will need to happen for Minneapolis to truly change its culture.
“I do think that there ultimately would need to be a shift in leadership that kind of lays the groundwork and authentically and very personally connects with what it means to be anti-racist. And how in practice, does a city government translate that so that it actually has pragmatic and real-life improvements for community members?” Obiri said.
“I don't think our current administration and leadership has really demonstrated that, unfortunately.”
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.
Mental health workers have responded to 12,000 calls since December of 2021, but team leaders say their success has not been because of the city, but in spite of it. Gina Obiri is on the line right now. She works with the BCR team as program manager in the city of Minneapolis' Office of Performance and Innovation. Gina, thanks for the time.
GINA OBIRI: Thank you, Cathy. Thank you for having me.
CATHY WURZER: As I mentioned, the federal Department of Justice said the behavioral crisis response team was one of the things that Minneapolis is doing right. But apparently, there's been some inconsistent support, your words, between the city and your team, including a lack of resources, even things like repairs to the vehicles you use. Have these struggles been an open secret in city hall?
GINA OBIRI: I wouldn't say for the whole course of the program they've been secret, but they have been challenges that I believe leadership have been aware of for quite some time. And we have not had success in getting them addressed more effectively.
CATHY WURZER: Who's not listening to you?
GINA OBIRI: I would say probably Office of Public Service leadership, elected leadership to some degree. Obviously, there are varying levels of support throughout our council and with the mayor-- and also department leadership with things like vehicle breakdowns. There have been times when we've been told that police vehicles are the priority, even though the BCR only has two, at the time, vehicles allocated to them by the city. And those were things that it feels like there could have been more direction to make sure that this was urgent and that we got those teams back on the streets as quickly as possible.
CATHY WURZER: You presented to the city council's public oversight committee yesterday. It was interesting to hear the challenges that your team has had to overcome. Is it true your employees didn't even know they'd have jobs next month?
GINA OBIRI: Just to be clear, all the employees of the BCR are employees of Canopy Roots, which is our-- the vendor that we contract with at the city to provide the BCR service.
CATHY WURZER: Yes, thank you.
GINA OBIRI: Yep. I'm a city employee in the department of performance management and innovation. And, yes, there has been a lot of concern around the BCR staff towards leadership of Canopy Roots wanting clarity on, is the contract going to be extended? Will we be working? What do we need to plan for to make sure that we're able to support ourselves? Things like that. So it's definitely a high priority for PMI to make sure that we provide that clarity to Canopy Roots and that those responders who have been doing an excellent job have that security to be able to continue serving our community.
CATHY WURZER: Another allegation from the presentation was kind of interesting-- that city staff have, evidently, outright said they don't want to work with BCR because, quoting now, it won't be around for long. What's your reaction to hearing statements like that?
GINA OBIRI: It is very disheartening. That has come up a number of times in my work with Canopy Roots. This is the feedback they're getting from some city staff. And one of the reasons why I felt it was important to bring attention to that yesterday with Canopy Roots, that we are hearing very publicly BCR is positive. We want this to be implemented fully.
In order to do that, we have to resource it adequately and effectively. And if we have folks who we're relying on for services to be refusing to give us the service or to acknowledge the BCR as the new first responder program that it is, then that is ultimately going to come out in the service level that is able to be provided to community.
CATHY WURZER: You're working for the city, and you know city government pretty well-- Canopy Roots is not part of the Minneapolis Police Department, right? In a sense, they're outsiders coming into a bureaucracy. And they're doing work that's not been done on this scale before.
Do you think the friction here is maybe growing pains as the city tries to find its groove with this program? Or should things have been more settled at this point?
GINA OBIRI: I think it's a mixture. And that's correct that the BCR is not part and has never been part of MPD. And it started as a pilot program, and we anticipated that there would be a lot of learning happening throughout that time, which is why PMI wanted a two year period, at least, to be able to make those improvements to figure out what those challenges were. There were points in the process where, again, PMI leadership of the program were left out of those conversations and some of that decision making.
And so we weren't able to always kind of explore the nuance with city leadership when deciding when or how to plan the transition. Those sorts of things were very much avoidable. And my hope is that going forward, that those can be alleviated.
Some of the pieces with having to figure out relationships with public safety partners, that was to be anticipated. And the BCR has come a very long way since when we first started and things were a little bit rocky with maybe some officers or other public safety agencies. And between them and BCR working together, they've developed very strong partnerships when serving community out in the streets, and they need to actually work together to provide the best support to residents.
CATHY WURZER: As you know, Gina, money is always an issue, right? I understand that there was a fairly significant amount of money that was moved to the wrong place. The funding was sent to the Department of Neighborhood Safety rather than your Department of Performance Management and Innovation for this program. That's got to be pretty frustrating.
GINA OBIRI: Yes, that has been frustrating. So what happened, I believe, with that is when the funding transitioned from PMI to neighborhood safety for the BCR program, they mistakenly transitioned the funding for all of the unarmed public safety work that our team was doing. And so the portion of that for other pilots that were designed to support the implementation of the BCR or to support other alternatives to police response, that's the funding that we're hoping to come back to our office so that we are able to continue that work that was approved by our city council.
CATHY WURZER: Anybody listening to this might think, well, look, the Department of Justice says this program is pretty good. It's doing what it's supposed to do, and there seems to be some growth on the horizon. I know you're hoping to expand the team to operate 24/7 by the end of the summer.
What do you say-- do you think the city council heard your arguments yesterday? Do you think that some of this is going to get smoothed out?
GINA OBIRI: That's my hope. I do believe that we will be able to bring a two year extension and contract amendment to city council on Thursday. So that was a positive outcome from yesterday's meeting since we were there to talk about a one year extension that was approved. So I am happy about that.
I am hoping-- it did seem like the committee was responsive and heard the argument that we made, that the program is what it is because of the vendor we've chosen. Canopy Roots has done an excellent job in upholding their values, and training their responders, and ensuring that they can work in a role and at a place that they are happy and proud to support, and want to make sure that our city leadership understands that that is a key connection and key component of the success that the BCR has exhibited over the past year and a half.
CATHY WURZER: So final question here-- this effort, ostensibly, is part of a long term reform effort in the city of Minneapolis when it comes to how we police in the city and what public safety looks like, right? What is standing in the way of long term reform, do you think, now that you know how city government works?
GINA OBIRI: That's a big question. I think some initial thoughts that I have on that would be that there's a lot of attention placed on MPD. A lot of those culture issues, though, do exist within and are very prominent in the city culture generally. And so until that culture changes, MPD is kind of a part of that larger system.
And so I do think that there, ultimately, would need to be a shift in leadership that kind of lays the groundwork and authentically and very personally connects with what it means to be anti-racist and how, in practice, does a city government translate that so that it actually has pragmatic and real life improvements for community members. I don't think our current administration and leadership has really demonstrated that, unfortunately.
CATHY WURZER: Gina, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
GINA OBIRI: Thank you.
CATHY WURZER: Gina Obiri has been with us. She's Program Manager in the city of Minneapolis Office of Performance and Innovation.
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