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As mental health calls rise, MN police training takes on vital role

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Officer Josh Eernisse puts on a tin foil hat during de-escalation training.
Police officer Josh Eernisse puts on a tin foil hat to convince Durnberger that he's not a "lizard person." Actress Amie Durnberger is playing the role of a paranoid person during a crisis intervention training session on Aug. 23 at the SCALES Training Site in Jordan, Minn.
Manda Lillie | MPR News

Agitated, Amie Durenberger stood in front of New Hope police officer Josh Eernisse. She held a whisk in her right hand. A tin foil hat covered her head. 

She was acting, but this was no ordinary performance.

Durenberger was playing the role of a paranoid citizen in crisis, perched on a mall roof ledge, convinced that lizard people were transmitting messages to her brain. Eernisse needed to get her safely to an ambulance. 

He spoke calmly, asking her one question at a time. It was difficult to keep her attention, but they eventually struck a deal — he put on her tin foil hat so she knew he wasn't one of the lizard people. She then agreed to go with him to the ambulance.

The scene on this day played out in a Scott County conference room. But Eernisse, a 10-year law enforcement veteran who served in the military, called the exercise "very stressful ... you always think there are things that could go better." He praised Durenberger for her realism and said the training was good for building on skills he already brings to the field.

Authorities say that expertise is crucial because of the growing number of police calls involving people who are in the throes of a mental health crisis when the squad cars roll up. Of the 14 Minnesotans shot and killed by police in 2016, six were in the throes of some kind of mental health crisis.

Legislation passed last year requires officers to take at least one hour a year of de-escalation training. Eernisse's coaching, through the nonprofit group Minnesota Crisis Intervention Training, is considered the gold standard. It includes more than 40 hours where officers are taught to recognize and calm someone in a mental breakdown. 

In Roseville, police data show mental health calls have more than doubled, from 433 in 2011 to 942 in 2016. One of those was John Birkeland, a 52-year-old man who last year stabbed a police dog. He was shot by Roseville officers who arrived at his apartment after his neighbors called to report profanity and breaking glass.

By next year, all Roseville officers will complete the Minnesota CIT course. Officers Mike Parkos and Jeff Lopez, who've already taken the course, said they learned quite a bit about specific mental illnesses but that it's difficult to teach about de-escalation in a classroom since every situation is fluid and unpredictable.

"The tools that I need are being a police officer for 20 years and being generally good at de-escalation, and I know all of my partners are good as well," said Parkos.

He and Lopez recalled responding to an incident where a man was standing outside a Wells Fargo building, in his underwear, banging his head against the glass. He lunged at officers as they arrived. They subdued him, but when Lopez went to talk to him he spat in his face. 

Actress Amie Durnberger wears a tin foil hat while acting paranoid.
Actress Amie Durnberger wears a tin foil hat while acting paranoid.
Manda Lillie | MPR News

Parkos said that man was about to be reported missing by his wife when they reached out to her. He had no drugs in his system and his wife didn't know much about his mental illness or what triggered the episodes.

Calls regarding mental health situations are draining in many ways, Lopez said.

"This call, although short in duration, maybe an hour, we had every officer working, a lieutenant from investigations, and then another lieutenant then has to come out of administrative duty and take calls and then I'm out of service at the hospital," he said.

Parkos and Lopez had many stories about helping people experiencing mental health emergencies, but sometimes these encounters with officers can turn deadly. 

In May, 18-year-old Khaleel Thompson was shot in the head and side by Crystal police officers in a confrontation at a park. Prior to the shooting, Thompson was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He survived and is recovering at a rehabilitation center according to his mother, Naomi.

Thompson was in a park holding a pellet gun. He was approached by four officers and refused to put it down, according to the report from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He was shot with what they described as non-lethal rounds before being shot with bullets.

"The night I first saw my son in the hospital I was told he might not make it," she said. 

The officers are back at work. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Thursday the officers were justified in using deadly force and noted they'd first pleaded with Thompson to drop the weapon, then fired non-lethal rounds from a bean bag rifle to try and subdue him.

"All those measures failed and ultimately the officers feared for their lives," he said, adding that he was grateful Thompson survived and is recovering.

The four officers involved had not received the 40-hour de-escalation training, although each had received some mental health crisis training which ranged from two to 26 hours. 

Crystal Police chief Stephanie Revering said every officer will take the weeklong course eventually.

Naomi Thompson said no matter what training officers receive they need to use alternatives to deadly force. She wants Khaleel to recover enough to talk about his experience with mental illness.

"He'll be able to tell his story and share with everyone as well," she said.

Thompson said her son's symptoms from the gun wound to his head are much worse than his mental health struggles. She said she wants to pursue a lawsuit against the police department for negligence. The night before the shooting, Thompson's friends called Crystal police to report his erratic behavior. 

Thompson said the police stayed with Khaleel only briefly and he wasn't capable at that point to judge if he needed help. Crystal police would not provide the police report on that visit, saying it was part of their investigation. 

Roger Meyer, director of the East Metro Mental Health Alliance, traces the rising number of incidents between police and people with mental health problems to a lack of resources and training, and an unwillingness by some patients to seek help, a circumstance that can bring calls from the same people over and again.

"Law enforcement are super frustrated," he said. They "aren't social workers. This isn't their job."

At the same time, said Meyer, "they're also very appreciative of anything people can do to make their officers feel like, 'Hey you know what, this is a broken system, but I did the best I could with the person I had in front of me.'"