Mental health is focus of hearing on police use of deadly force

 Attorney General Keith Ellison (left) and Commissioner John Harrington
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (left) and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington lead the second meeting of the Working Group on Police-Involved Deadly Force Encounters on Saturday at Minnesota State University in Mankato.
Image from Minnesota Department of Public Safety video

Mental health took center stage as law enforcement officers, county attorneys, elected officials and other community leaders gathered Saturday in Mankato for the second meeting of a state working group on police use of deadly force.

“The goal here is nothing less than to save lives — to save young people's lives in our communities, to save lives of officers, and to restore and build on the trust that communities and their police departments have to have if we're to function as a civil society,” Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said as the hearing opened.

Relatives and friends of people who have died after encounters with police also attended, and — as they did at the group’s first meeting at the State Capitol in August — raised concerns about the makeup and focus of the panel.

Harrington, co-chair of the panel along with Attorney General Keith Ellison, said the group was expanded in recent weeks to include representatives for Minnesotans with disabilities, after feedback received at the first public meeting in August. He noted that “over 50 percent of the deadly force encounters involve somebody that has either a mental health (issue) or some kind of disability."

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During a panel about officer mental health, the group heard from Mike Goldstein, chief of police in Plymouth, who spoke about a new program in his department that requires officers to see a mental health counselor at least once a year. Those visits are confidential unless the officer appears to be a danger to himself or others; Goldstein said that has not been an issue so far.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who serves on the panel, said he appreciated the attention given to what is still "clearly a stigma within our profession, sadly." He said efforts to address officers’ mental health have “to be in our budget. This cannot be something that is a hit-and-miss or one-and-done.”

Relatives and friends of people who have died after encounters with police
Relatives and friends of people who have died after encounters with police speak during a meeting of the Working Group on Police-Involved Deadly Force Encounters on Saturday at Minnesota State University in Mankato.
Alisa Roth | MPR News

The general topic drew the ire of several people in the audience, who spoke and called for more attention on the mental health and well-being of families affected by police shootings.

Sumaya Aden, whose brother Isak was fatally shot by police in Eagan in July, said she was pleased that family members were able to testify at Saturday’s hearing. But she said police and policymakers need to make a greater effort to work with families after police shootings, and include them in policy discussions.

“A lot of times, families here are powerless, they can’t have a say, they can’t be heard, nothing matters,” she said. “We are not in control of anything. Knowing that we can be a part of something that can make a difference and save the next family member’s life, the next person’s life, that matters more to us — because we can never get our loved ones back.”

Speaking with MPR News during a break in the hearing, Ellison said the well-being of officers and families both demand attention.

“I would urge people not to look at it as officer mental and emotional health versus community mental and emotional health,” he said. “Maybe we should be talking about both, right? At the end of the day, both are critical and important.”

Others in the audience who spoke included Don Damond, the fiance of Justine Ruszczyk who was fatally shot by a Minneapolis police officer responding to her 911 call in 2017; and Matilda Smith, whose son Jaffort Smith was fatally shot by St. Paul police officers in 2016. Authorities said Jaffort Smith had shot a woman and fired at officers before they fired back.

Matilda Smith said there’s been a growing disconnect between police and the communities they serve.

"Hire police from our community,” she implored to the panelists. “I come from a community where police went to school with us, they went to church with us, we were in the grocery store together — never killed anyone. You know why? Because everyone knew each other. ... Don't send nobody over here that don't know the people of the community. Because they have no love for them. ... We need the ones that know us and love us."

Other sessions on Saturday included discussion on training for officers on how to better interact with people with autism.

Jillian Nelson is a community resource and policy advocate for the Autism Society of Minnesota. She told the panel about the Aug. 31 fatal shooting of 21-year-old Kobe Dimock-Heisler by Brooklyn Center police. Family members said he had autism; the shooting remains under investigation.

“The loss of this cherished life is not the only consequence to that police call. This has struck fear in every person in our community,” she said. “Families are saying, ‘We can't dial 911; we can't do it because we don't know if our autistic person will be safe.’ ”

Nelson said that when officers respond to someone with autism who is having a “meltdown,” it can be a challenge for officers to navigate the situation, and she called for more training for law enforcement.

“It may appear that the community needs to be protected from the person having a meltdown. When in fact, the person having the meltdown needs the support and assistance the most,” she said. “We see a pattern of individuals with autism being treated as perpetrators, for behavior that is directly connected to their disability.”

The panel also heard from Drew Evans, superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which handles the investigations into most police shootings in the state. They discussed whether there should be statewide, standardized procedures for how police shootings are investigated.

Panelists also asked Evans whether the BCA should have an independent unit to handle investigations of police use of deadly force — personnel that don’t have day-to-day interactions with local law enforcement officers on other cases.

Evans said the BCA does take steps to avoid any potential conflicts of interest, including bringing in personnel from other parts of the state if necessary. Evans said there have been internal discussions about creating a specialized unit to respond to cases of police use of deadly force.

"It's certainly something we're open to having a discussion about, and something that could work," Evans said, but he noted that there typically are only about 20 such cases a year in the state. "Figuring out the staffing of what that would look is something that would need to be discussed."

The working group’s third public hearing, scheduled for Oct. 17, will deal with policy and legal implications of police use of deadly force.