Brooklyn Park initiative offers alternative to police response to mental health crisis calls

Two person check their destination addresses
Maria Stevenson (right) and Nils Dybvig (left) check their destination addresses on a laptop at the Brooklyn Park Police Department garage on Jan. 17.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Each day is different for Nils Dybvig, a senior social worker with Hennepin County who works out of the Brooklyn Park Police Department. 

Dybvig has been a social worker for decades and joined the police department’s Alternative Response Team in December of 2022, when the program first launched. 

“Oftentimes, we will join a police officer or sometimes we’ll message the police officer and say, ‘Hey, this is a situation where we could probably handle it ourselves,’” Dybvig said. 

The Brooklyn Park Police Department partnered with Hennepin County and North Memorial Health to launch a mental health Alternative Response Team which consists of a social worker and a paramedic who can handle calls police officers may not need to respond to.

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A person drives a car
Nils Dybvig, senior social worker with Hennepin County, observes his reflection in the rearview mirror while driving.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

On a recent weekday, MPR News rode along in the van Dybvig drove around as he waited for calls to come in. His role allows him to respond to people who are dealing with a mental health crisis.

Paramedic Maria Stevenson was also in the van. Stevenson is a supervisor who still fills in as a paramedic when needed.

 She says sometimes, mental health crises happen because of medication.  

“Rather, that be that they’re not taking their medication, or that they’re not taking it correctly,” Stevenson said. 

She says there are calls police officers don’t need to take. That’s when she and Dybvig step in. 

“It lightens their load quite a bit. And it helps get the people that need the resources, the correct resources, instead of making them go to the emergency room, or not getting any help at all,” Stevenson said. 

A person poses for a portrait
Maria Stevenson, community paramedic supervisor, poses for a portrait.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The Alternative Response Team, or ART for short, will respond to a call if no crime is being committed and there isn’t a risk of violence. 

Senior Department Administrator in behavioral health for Hennepin County Adesola Oni says since it started, ART has responded to around 700 mental health-related calls in Brooklyn Park. 

“It’s really about ensuring people have access to the care that they need in a way that’s meaningful, that matters to them and that really helps support their goals and promotes their well being which in turn, I think affects the intersections and the interconnectedness of all of us as human beings and makes things better,” she said. 

According to data from Brooklyn Park police, there’s been an increase in mental-health related calls for service. 

In 2017, there were 573 mental health-related calls — compared to 1,251 calls last year. 

Alyssa Archer is a patrol officer with the Brooklyn Park police department.

A person poses for a portrait
Alyssa Archer, patrol officer with the Brooklyn Park Police Department, poses for a portrait at the Brooklyn Park Police Department gym.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

She says the team can take calls that may otherwise keep officers from responding to situations they’re better equipped to handle, like violent crimes or thefts. 

Archer says the social worker and paramedic can be more effective in offering long term solutions for those who need help.

“They need long term support. And my interaction with them limited to a couple minutes while I’m there is not the long term support that they deserve,” she said. 

Brooklyn Park Deputy Chief William Barritt says while officers do go through critical incident training to identify behaviors and risks, having the alternative response team can help de-escalate or prevent instances that may turn violent. 

Barritt also said the alternative response team reduces the likelihood of officers responding to repeat calls which may put them in a position to use force. 

“Where alternative response can come in, and really can kind of nip that down on that first call or that second call, because when alternative response deals with that individual during that first intervention, they follow up with that individual later,” he said. 

A person poses a portraif
Nils Dybvig poses for a portrait at the Brooklyn Park Police Department.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Dybvig says oftentimes, people experiencing a mental health crisis may think they need an emergency room, but it’s usually not the right place.

“Instead of going to the emergency room, let’s call your psychiatrist’s office and see about getting you in for an appointment,” he said. 

The Alternative Response Team works from 10 a.m. to around 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, although the county is exploring options to expand hours and hire more people. 

Hennepin County officials say there are plans to establish alternative response teams in other cities in the county.