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Law enforcement gathers to discuss emergency response to suicide calls

Post-Bulletin - 12/16/2019

Dec. 16--What should police do when someone calls 911 for a mental health crisis? How should law enforcement respond to suicide calls? And what does it feel like being a concerned loved one on the other side of that phone?

Last week nearly 200 law enforcement leaders, mental health professionals and stakeholders from across the state gathered in Bloomington and over live internet streams to discuss how to best respond to suicide calls. It was part of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Critical Issues Forum. The more than three-hour forum featured speakers focusing on the legal, moral and practical lens of responding to calls concerning individuals who may be suicidal.

"We are very concerned about this trend and want to find solutions that save lives and prevent tragedies," MCPA Executive Director Andy Skoogman said in a statement.

A survey of more than 300 Minnesota police chiefs conducted by the MCPA found that nearly 65 percent of respondents said they have either changed their response to suicide calls or are considering doing so because of court rulings and the potential dangers to both the officers and those in crisis.

"There is no question that law enforcement across the country is rethinking its approach to this type of call," said Jeff Potts, Bloomington police chief and MCPA president.

Local training

In Rochester and Olmsted County, for more than a decade law enforcement has received Crisis Intervention Training -- a four-day, 40-hour training program that combines lectures, guest speakers and role play to give those in law enforcement another tool when responding to calls. The training is touted as the only in-house program in the state, meaning members of the police department and the sheriff's office run the training rather than contracting the work out.

First to speak in last week's forum was Eric Daigle, a member of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and founder of a law firm that specializes in law enforcement operations.

Focusing on the legal ramifications of responding, or not responding, to suicide calls, Daigle said law enforcement wasn't there to have the conversation because its members don't want to help their communities, but because they are put between a rock and hard place as it applies what is expected of them and what are the legal ramifications of their actions.

"It's not an easy topic to discuss," Daigle said. "The individual we are dealing with needs some type of mental health treatment and they are not going to get it from us."

Daigle told those in attendance that law enforcement can't be everything.

"And we need to make sure that we tell our communities, 'My law enforcement officer cannot be a mental health practitioner. My law enforcement officer can't be a priest, can't be an accountant, can't be all these things we have to be every day,'" he said. "I don't want more training, I want more resources."

Resources such as regional paramedics and mental health professionals respond to mental health calls with police, Daigle said.

Rising suicide rates

Suicide rates are increasing nationally and have increased even more dramatically in Minnesota, prompting those in the mental health field to find a different way to talk about it than in the past. From 1999 to 2016, the national suicide rate has risen nearly 30%, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Should we be responding to suicide calls?" said Sue Aberdholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) in Minnesota. "There is a reason you are sent out."

Many people do not know the mobile crisis team number in their county and while crisis teams are more developed in Minnesota than in other states, there is still room for growth.

The adult's and children's mental health crisis response phone number for Dodge, Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona counties is 1-844-274-7472. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

"The issue is that everyone knows 911," she said. "We have to think about this differently. 911 operators can do the warm hand-off to mental health experts and we think they should."

Aberdholden encouraged a co-responder model in which law enforcement agencies contract with a mobile crisis team to help respond. In Rochester and Olmsted County, a full-time social worker is embedded with law enforcement. Rochester Police Lt., Frank Ohm said the social worker will go out on rides with officers and will initiate her own calls as well. Having Megan Schueller as part of the office has been "absolutely fantastic," Ohm said.

Washington County Deputy Chief Brian Mueller, president of the Special Operations Training Association of the Upper Midwest, spoke about the practical and tactical options to help those in crisis.

"We cannot be the mental health experts in this, but we can partner with them," he said.


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