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Police learn lessons after shooting of mentally ill woman 10 years ago

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Barbara Schneider
Barbara Schneider in an undated photo. After Minneapolis police fatally shot and killed Schneider 10 years ago, departments and groups have been trying to make sure similar tragedies will never happen.
Photo Courtesy of the Barbara Schneider foundation

Minneapolis Police Sgt. William Palmer said he will never forget the night he and another officer shot and killed Barbara Schneider, a social justice activist with bipolar disorder who had armed herself with a knife in her Uptown apartment.  

In the 10 years since the shooting, Palmer said he's worked hard to try to reduce the chances that it could happen again. The Minneapolis Police Department now uses an innovative crisis intervention program to train officers on how to respond to mental health crisis calls. But Palmer and mental health advocates throughout the state say that more still needs to be done.

Police arrived at Schneider's apartment on June 12, 2000, in response to a 911 call from the building's manager. The manager told the dispatcher that Schneider was playing her music loudly and creating a "little disturbance."

Officers arrived and found Schneider distraught, psychotic, and armed with a knife. When she charged at police, officers fired back and killed her. She was 49 years old. 

A grand jury found that the officers were justified in using deadly force, but the killing sparked an outcry from community members and mental health advocates.

"I think we just didn't realize what we were dealing with, because of a lack of experience and a lack of training," Palmer said in an interview Friday with MPR News' Tom Crann.

In the years since, Palmer has become an outspoken advocate for mental health training for police officers. The Barbara Schneider Foundation, a nonprofit formed after the shooting, has partnered with the police to implement innovative crisis intervention training programs designed to prevent similar tragedies.

In Minneapolis, about one in four patrol officers has received 40 hours of crisis intervention training and are classified as CIT officers. When 911 dispatchers receive a call involving a mental health crisis, they are able to send out a CIT officer about 95 percent of the time, Palmer said. In 2007, officers responded to about 1,100 calls involving a mental health crisis.

The department's program is voluntary, and advocates have raised concerns about the limited mental health training given to other officers. All Minneapolis police officers attended a mandatory four-hour training on mental illness several years ago, and a one-hour training last year. 

Barbara Schneider
Barbara Schneider was a social justice activist. She was 49 years old when she died.
Photo Courtesy of the Barbara Schneider Foundation

But most police officers in the state have not received any comprehensive training, advocates say. Donna Fox, director of training for the Minnesota CIT Officer's Association, said her agency has trained 652 officers, mostly outside of the Twin Cities area. 

"Six-hundred-and-fifty-two is kind of a drop in the bucket," Fox said. "It's a good start, and we're moving forward, but [many departments] can't afford it."

Palmer estimates that it costs about $500 to send a police officer through the training, which uses professional actors to role play situations and teach officers how to de-escalate a mental health crisis. For smaller departments facing budget cuts, the training could be too costly, he said. 

Some police departments offer less intensive training. 

Golden Valley Police Chief Stacy Altonen said every officer in the department has received some training in mental illness, most recently during an annual in-service in May. At the training, officers attended a presentation by the Barbara Schneider Foundation and listened to a speech by a person who receives mental health services. 

But Golden Valley officers don't have the 40-hour class that some Minneapolis officers receive.

"We haven't done it because of our city population and our police department population," Altonen said. "We certainly come across mentally ill people, but not to the extent a bigger city would."

Instead, she said the department provides officers with a "foundational level of understanding of more common mental illnesses."

Altonen said many smaller police departments are similar in the training they provide.

"Most of them do what we do, but I don't think most agencies have the full-scale training program," she said.

Mark Anderson, the executive director of the Barbara Schneider Foundation, said that a statewide, comprehensive training program is needed. Having a CIT officer respond to a call can mean the difference between life and death, he said. 

Anderson said that responding to a mental health crisis call is often challenging, and officers need to be prepared.

"It's important for people to understand that this is not really the failing of a police officer," he said. "This is a failing of a system."

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the state branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that CIT teams are just one part of the solution. 

Some counties, including Hennepin and Ramsey, also have separate mental health crisis teams led by mental health professionals. The teams can respond to situations that do not require police intervention, or can accompany police to a scene.

"With most medical emergencies, we don't call the police out," Abderholden said. "So to be able to normalize this is really important."

Palmer said that despite the work that still needs to be done, Schneider would be proud of the progress that's been made.

"Barbara wanted to give back to the world, and that's what we're trying to do," he said. "I think ... this is really part of her legacy, even though she lost her life in this tragedy."  

  (MPR's Elizabeth Dunbar and Tom Crann contributed to this report.)