[Hpn] police change how they deal with mentally ill

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Sun, 17 Dec 2000 10:47:42 -0700


Minneapolis police change how they deal with mentally ill
David Chanen
Star Tribune
Sunday, December 17, 2000

Three people with mental illness, three confrontations with police, same
tragic ending.

And, now, three proposals for change.

Since December 1999, Minneapolis police have fatally shot two men and a
woman who had a mental illness, putting the department's tactics under

While department officials say each use of deadly force was justified, it is
launching a training program in January that could dramatically change how
officers respond to calls involving mentally ill people.

Two related proposals could affect police beyond Minneapolis. The board that
licenses Minnesota's police officers is planning to require colleges to
expand their mental-illness curriculums for 2-and 4-year law enforcement
degrees. And a coalition of state mental health advocates will ask the
Legislature next year to appropriate money so that two cities can establish
model programs for responding to people in a mental health crisis.

Neil Melton, executive director of the Minnesota Peace Officers Standards
and Training Board, said the issue of police training to deal with mentally
ill people "moved to the front burner" because of the Minneapolis shootings.

Besides expanding college requirements, the board plans to add questions
about mental health on the peace officer's license exam, he said.

Police Chief Robert Olson said he began considering more training before the
last two shootings. Police need to work with the mental health system to
deal with distraught people before crises occur, he said.

However, he said police are only part of the solution. Officers often deal
with the aftermath of other problems, such as mentally ill people not taking
medication or not receiving proper treatment.

"People want to think the police are the answer to everything, and that
comes with the territory," Olson said. "What concerns me is we want to look
for simplistic answers to a complex problem."

Training begins 

Beginning next month, Minneapolis will recruit officers for a 40-hour
training program on recognizing mental disorders and learning to resolve
crises safely. One goal is to end such crises with a trip to a mental health
service rather than taking someone to jail or risking injury.

Once they are trained, the officers will be assigned to a
crisis-intervention team. Dispatchers will be trained to screen calls that
may involve mentally ill people so that a trained officer can respond.

Those calls include suicide attempts and reports that a mentally ill person
has threatened someone, won't leave a room or has stopped taking medication.
The call also could be about a mentally ill person who created a public

In many cases, the officers will bring the distraught person to the crisis
intervention center at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. Police
already rely on the center, taking about 1,500 people there each year.

Lt. Stacy Altonen, head of training for Minneapolis police, said she would
like to see 30 to 50 officers trained next year. The department hasn't ruled
out putting every officer through the training at some point, she said.
Minneapolis has about 950 officers.

Minneapolis officers now receive four hours of training in dealing with
mentally ill people. For the first time this year, St. Paul officers had
eight hours of training on the subject.

Roots in Memphis 

The Memphis Police Department developed its first crisis intervention team
in 1988 after community outcry over the fatal shooting of a mentally ill
man. Since then, police have fatally shot only two people who were mentally
ill, said Lt. Sam Cochran, program coordinator.

Police in Seattle, Portland, Ore.; San Jose, Calif.; Waterloo, Iowa, and
Houston have adopted similar programs. A key part of each program is
increased training.

The training is done by mental health professionals, people with mental
illness, their families and officers on the crisis team. Officers learn
about the effects of medication, suicide assessment and prevention, and
communication techniques for a crisis.

Memphis has about 1,000 uniformed officers, 192 of whom are on the crisis
team. They responded to 9,000 crisis calls last year, including 2,000
suicides, Cochran said. It took three years to train enough officers to
handle the call volume, he said.

Randolph Dupont, a clinical psychologist and a lead instructor in the
Memphis training program, said crisis intervention officers can drop a
person off at a psychiatric emergency center for evaluation. In most cases,
the officer gets back on the street within 15 minutes. About 50 percent of
the calls end at the center, he said.

Cochran said the Memphis model won't prevent another fatal shooting, but
"announcing to your city that you're starting such a program is a very
powerful message." Mentally ill people become more comfortable with officers
as they see more of each other in the community, he said.

Three shootings 

The deaths of three mentally ill people in Minneapolis put the police
response to this population in the spotlight.

In December 1999, Rocco Dandrea was killed after he pointed what police
believed was a gun at them near the Metrodome. The object was found to be a
plastic replica of a gun. At the time, police said he appeared to be
delusional. Family members and several mental health professionals later
described him as mentally ill.

Officers shot Barbara Schneider in June after she reportedly went toward
officers with a knife in her Uptown apartment. Officers were sent there
after a disturbance was reported, but officials say they missed a later
dispatch message that she was mentally ill and that the building manager
should be consulted before approaching her.

Last month, police killed Alfred Sanders after they tried to arrest him for
reckless driving. Officers blocked his car in a south Minneapolis alley,
where he reportedly sped toward officers. Officers didn't know he had a
mental illness, Olson said.

Minneapolis Deputy Chief Greg Hestness said the Hennepin County Sheriff's
Office is still investigating the last two killings, but he doesn't believe
more training would have changed the outcome. A grand jury cleared officers
in the Dandrea case.

"We think the Memphis model is very promising," Hestness said. "It can
potentially offer more safety and better service."

Other efforts 

Minneapolis isn't the only community looking at how police deal with
mentally ill people.

Sandra Meicher is executive director of the Mental Health Association of
Minnesota, a nonprofit advocacy group. She is part of a group that wants the
Legislature to appropriate money to develop a model for police and community
response in two cities, one urban and one rural, as yet not selected. She
believes nobody has tried such a project in the state.

"If you want officers and communities to be safer, you have to be willing to
put money up to do this," she said. "It's too easy to just criticize an
institution like the peace officers and not come up with any solutions."

In Duluth, officers not only will get training in dealing with mental health
crises, but also can call for assistance from mental health workers on a
crisis response team formed in July. Glenn Anderson, executive director of
the Human Development Center in Duluth, said the team is like a mental
health fire department for five northern counties.

"We had to reach out to police because the mental health community is so
huge and complex," he said. "In the short time it's been around, I'm sure
disasters have been averted and lives have been saved."

Police bring an average of five people a day to the Crisis Intervention
Center at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. The center offers
counseling, assessment and referral to people in emotional crisis.

Other law enforcement

Minneapolis police agencies

2000* through September 981 206

1999 1435 274

1998 1485 283

1997 1623 334

1996 1573 300

Source: Hennepin County Medical Center


Recent killings involving people in emotional crisis have placed under
scrutiny the response by law enforcement officials and mental health

Larry S. Dame: Dame, 28, has been charged with second-degree murder in the
beating deaths Oct. 19 in Blaine of his sister Donna Mimbach, 29, her
husband Todd Mimbach, 32, and their children, 12-year-old John Mimbach,
9-year-old Amber Duval and 22-month old Daniel Mimbach. Family members said
Dame told them he heard voices telling him that his family was out to kill
him because they were trying to commit him to a mental hospital. Days before
the homicides, Dame's relatives tried to get him admitted to Mercy Hospital
in Coon Rapids, but he was turned away after a mental health evaluation.

Barbara Schneider: Minneapolis police responded to a call June 12 that
Schneider was creating a disturbance at her Uptown apartment building. She
was shot in her bedroom after coming toward officers with a knife, police
said. A dispatcher had been told that Schneider, 49, was mentally ill but
that information apparently didn't reach the responding officers.

Alfred Sanders: Minneapolis police shot the 29-year-old Minneapolis man
after he reportedly sped toward officers in a car in a South Side alley Nov.
1. Officers boxed Sanders car in an alley after a security officer from
Augsburg College spotted him driving erratically, at one point on a
sidewalk. Relatives tried unsuccessfully to have him committed for a mental
health evaluation less than 24 hours before he was killed. He had been
committed in 1998, when he was found to have bipolar disorder.

Rocco Dandrea: On Dec. 8, 1999 near the Metrodome, Dandrea pointed what
police thought was a real gun at them and refused to put it down. Police
fired as a bicyclist approached the area. The gun was later found to be a
toy replica. Dandrea, 42, was described as delusional at the time of the

David Chanen can be contacted at dchanen@startribune.com

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 Copyright 2000 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.


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