Call to Mind

Minneapolis at forefront of alternatives to policing, mental health crisis response

A person sits in an open cab of a van
Behavioral crisis responders Jessy Grondin and Alex Anderson prepare to leave for a welfare call from Canopy Roots offices in Minneapolis during a shift on Feb. 6.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated March 28, 9:55 a.m. | Posted March 27, 4 a.m.

On a warmer-than-usual February night in Minneapolis, a nurse dialed 911 because one of her patients sounded disoriented or inebriated. The 911 dispatcher didn’t forward the welfare check to police like she would have done just a few years before, but sent it to the Minneapolis Behavioral Crisis Response team — otherwise known as BCR.

Dressed in blue jackets with the project’s name splashed across their backs, two responders climbed into their big, white sprinter van and rattled off towards the woman’s home in northeast Minneapolis. 

Responder Jessy Grondin said they’re trained in de-escalation techniques. Responders approach each call with the aim of empowering the person in crisis. 

“We inform people of who we are, we introduce ourselves and we just take an approach where we’re very calm,” Grondin said. “That also helps them be more open, and we just provide as much information as we can, so that they have choices on the care that they have.” 

As the four year anniversary of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer approaches, the pace of change in the city’s public safety system can seem glacially slow. But the city’s behavioral crisis program has been quietly growing, putting Minneapolis at the forefront of a nationwide experiment in making emergency mental health response a core public safety service. 

The broad range of people served by the BCR program is obvious from the group’s vans. They’re wheelchair accessible, and have additional seats for adults and children who need a ride to the hospital or a safe place at a family member’s house.

Two police peer through a house window while two people stand back
Minneapolis police officers Chris Perry (left) and Brian Heaton check a house for inhabitants while behavioral crisis responders Alex Anderson (second from right) and Jessy Grondin try to make contact with the welfare check recipient via phone on Feb. 6.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The cabinets lining the van’s walls are packed with supplies for all sorts of situations they may encounter: bottles of water for when it’s hot, hand warmers for freezing temperatures, fidget spinners to distract passengers and zines filled with resources for those without shelter. 

What the responders don’t have are weapons, including guns. They’re not licensed police officers. 

The van is marked with the program’s name and a logo for the city of Minneapolis, but it’s not equipped with sirens or flashing lights, which Grondin said can cause panic for someone who’s already distraught. 

The woman who was the subject of the 911 call didn’t answer the door, and it wasn’t clear that she was even home. Minneapolis Police Department officers came by to see if they could help. 

Officer Christopher Perry said he’s run into behavioral crisis responders all over town, and believes they make his job easier.  

“They’re a blessing, that’s for sure — it takes a lot of weight off our shoulders,” Perry said. “I wish there were more of them.” 

Responder Alex Anderson said police and crisis responders take distinct approaches to an emergency mental health call. While officers are trained to maintain control of a situation, crisis responders are trained to let the patient dictate the care they receive. Sometimes it’s a trip to the hospital or a friend’s house. Sometimes it’s an introduction to a social worker.  

A police officer shines a flashlight through a window
Police officer Brian Heaton checks for inhabitants inside a northeast Minneapolis house where crisis responders had been performing a welfare check on Feb. 6.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

During a typical day, responders deal with 911 calls on everything from someone scaring bystanders at a bus stop to a student having a bad day at school. If the situation escalates, they always have backup from other emergency responders.  

“If we need police to help, they always come and help us, and police can tell when our approach is better and they request us to come out frequently,” Anderson said. “It seems to be good having both of us around.”

‘Appropriate response’ 

Following the Minneapolis police killing of a woman in crisis named Barbara Schneider in 2000, Minneapolis officers have been required to take crisis intervention trainings, which have been described by the U.S. Department of Justice as inadequate for dealing with behavioral health issues. 

Minneapolis’ Behavioral Crisis Response program grew out of discussions at the city following George Floyd’s killing in July 2020. A database maintained by the Washington Post has found that about a quarter of people killed by police officers in the line of duty are experiencing a mental health crisis, and city officials wanted to find ways to minimize the chance that something could go wrong on a police call.   

A woman poses for a photo
Canopy Roots Executive Director Candace Hanson at the Canopy Roots office in Minneapolis on Feb. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Canopy Roots Executive Director Candace Hanson said the idea by the city’s then-Office of Performance and Innovation fit with Canopy Root’s mission and the skills of its employees. She said it’s also important that Canopy Roots is majority Black-owned and uses a culturally-responsive model to connect with people who need help. 

”When someone is a member of a historically marginalized group or currently marginalized group, when you have an authority figure coming at you from the stance of, ‘I’m the authority and I know what’s best for you,’ you don’t tend to get very good outcomes,” Hanson said.  

The project launched with limited hours at the end of 2021. With financial support from the city, it has since grown to include three dozen full and part-time around-the-clock responders.

Although there was some initial blowback after disinformation spread on social media alleging falsely that the project siphoned money from the police budget, Hanson said support from Minneapolis police officers has been integral to the project’s success.    

“I like the terminology of appropriate response rather than alternative response because it shines the light on the reality that maybe these calls were never appropriate at all for police, but that was the only tool we had at the time,” Hanson said. “When we expand the way we see public safety, there are other tools out there for a variety of calls [usually] taken by police.”

Canopy Roots hires responders who are either licensed mental health professionals or have worked in fields like addiction treatment. Hanson said one misconception is that it’s dangerous for civilians to go to emergency calls without being armed. 

A white van drives past a police squad and fire truck
Crisis responders Jessy Grondin and Alex Anderson leave an apartment complex in Minneapolis after responding to a welfare call on Feb. 6.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In more than 16,000 emergency calls, the group has responded to since the end of 2021, there have been no serious injuries of responders or the people they were called to help, according to the group’s data (although one responder was punched during a call). 

“We know that mental health professionals and social workers have been going out into the community forever,” Hanson said. “We’ve been dealing with emergency situations and dealing with volatile situations in the community, we’ve been doing that as long as the profession has existed.” 

One of the organization’s cardinal rules is that they’re required to let police handle calls involving firearms or threats to first responders. 

Program Manager of Minneapolis BCR Marisa Stevenson has been with the program from the start, and said responders’ role isn’t to enforce laws. Instead, they use a ‘harm reduction model’ when they receive an emergency call for help.

“We’re not trying to fix anybody or anything, we’re trying to support them exactly where they are, whether that’s giving resources, giving somebody a ride to a shelter,” Stevenson said, or “pulling in a trusted family member, a friend, really trying to help someone navigate the next few hours.” 

A woman listens during a press conference
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Program Manger of Minneapolis BCR Marisa Stevenson listens during a press conference at Canopy Roots in Minneapolis on Feb. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Stevenson said one aim is to help people experiencing mental health crises from unnecessarily going to jail or being further traumatized.  

“When somebody is experiencing mental health symptoms, it might look scary to somebody else, but we’re able to show up and really center the person, engage in different interventions, and say, ‘The hospital is more appropriate today for them,’” Stevenson said.  

Mental health response efforts grow nationwide

The Minneapolis program isn’t alone in the country. For decades, a similar program in Eugene, Ore., has also utilized the city’s 911 system  according to Jackson Beck, senior program associate with the Vera Institute of Justice. But it wasn’t until George Floyd’s killing that others started to pop up, with some estimates showing that more than 100 now operate across the country, alongside other programs like Hennepin County’s COPE mobile crisis response and the national 988 crisis line

The programs can vary widely in approach, Beck said. Some use a co-responder model, where a mental health professional is partnered with a police officer for calls and others require the caller to know the program’s contact information. 

The Minneapolis program is distinguished by the fact that it’s tied directly into the 911 emergency dispatch system, where callers can explicitly request a behavioral crisis response team or be routed to them through a dispatcher. Minneapolis also chose to contract with a private organization rather than city staff — which has been spun off as Canopy Roots. 

A person walks down the steps of a house stoop
Behavioral crisis responders Alex Anderson (left) and Jessy Grondin perform a welfare check at a house in northeast Minneapolis on Feb. 6.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Data from these new programs so far is spotty, Beck said, but a Stanford University study of Denver’s program found that it helped reduce reported crime in areas where it was operating by 34 percent. 

“The researchers said they found evidence that the program reduces reports of crimes like trespassing, public disorder, resisting arrest — the kinds of things that would be associated with crisis situations that come to the attention of 911 and are a better fit for these civilian staff programs,” Beck said.

The researchers said the program keeps people experiencing a mental health crisis out of the criminal justice system and gets them help, which prevents crime in the future and their possible incarceration.

And the study found some benefits for police, too: about two-thirds of low priority calls that police traditionally respond to could be directed to civilian mental health experts.

The study also shows that behavioral crisis responses are about four times less expensive than a law enforcement-only response, and that they handle most calls without police assistance. Data from Canopy Roots shows that roughly 80 percent of calls are handled by crisis responders independent of other first responders.

Beck said research has shown that even flashing lights or uniforms associated with law enforcement can escalate a mental health crisis. Beck said it’s heartening that programs like Minneapolis’ are intentionally avoiding those triggers, which allows them to slow down a situation — a luxury law enforcement officers often don’t have. 

Two people sit in the front of a van
Behavioral crisis responder Jessy Grondin checks their computer for notes from dispatch after finishing a welfare check in northeast Minneapolis during a shift on Feb. 6.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

People experiencing a mental health crisis often come into contact with police because they don’t have other options for services or care, said James Densley of Metro State University’s school of criminology and criminal justice. 

“It’s a really positive step to try to find that middle ground,” Densley said. “Where are the encounters where we don’t need to send an armed officer? Where can we benefit from the expertise of someone who can deescalate the situation and get someone the help they need?”   

In Minneapolis, Canopy Roots leaders said they know the program is only one part of the solution to a more comprehensive public safety program. But they hope it will continue to grow and evolve, perhaps incorporating more civilian peer responders or inspiring state lawmakers to set up a professional track to train mental health first responders.

The program now receives about $6 million annually in ongoing and one-time funds, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said during a recent press conference touting the program’s successes. Canopy Roots received a two-year extension on their contract last summer and will need to go back to the council to renew the funding next year. 

“I don’t think there’s a city in the entire country that has fully rolled out a comprehensive safety system where no matter what the 911 response, we’ve got the specific skill set that’s ready to go,” Frey said. “We’re trying to do that here in Minneapolis. Is it taking time? Sure. But we’re seeing some great successes and those successes can be celebrated.”  

An investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department released last year by the U.S. Department of Justice heralded the city’s crisis response program, saying they “provide timely, compassionate and impactful services to a person in crisis,” and noting that the city’s training for officers on behavioral health issues doesn’t equip them to respond appropriately. 

Three people stand at a press conference, separated by pillars
City Council president Elliott Payne speaks during a press conference in support of the city’s Behavioral Crisis Response Unit at Canopy Roots offices in Minneapolis on Feb. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Minneapolis City Council President Elliott Payne was part of the city division that originally piloted the Behavioral Crisis Response unit. He said it’s just the start of the city’s expansion of first responder options. 

”In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, people were afraid to call 911 because they didn’t want somebody in crisis to be at risk for a police-involved shooting, and they didn’t want it heavy on their soul that they may have caused that,” Payne said. “Now I can go out to my community and proudly say, ‘The very first thing you should do is call 911.’”  

Responder Grondin has worked with the behavioral crisis response team since its launch and said she’s proud of what it accomplishes on a daily basis. 

“Our role is to try and help someone in crisis, and offer whatever we can to help them get to the next moment and hopefully connect them to longer term resources,” Grondin said. “I say that we’re a cool drink of water in the moment.”  

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