by NATHANIEL NELSON
Winona –– like many cities across the state –– has experienced an increase in mental illness over the past few years and, as a result, more people are having difficulty finding the treatment they need. When a crisis arises, and those suffering become a risk to themselves or others, law enforcement may be called in to help. In the past, only a few officers were trained for mental health calls, but this year, that is beginning to change –– all officers now undergo training specifically to help those with mental illnesses, to de-escalate situations for the safety of all involved.
Officer Eric Mueller underwent crisis-intervention (CIV) training 12 years ago, while the program was still a volunteer-only training in Minnesota. For a full week, he studied at a school in Saint Paul to learn specific CIV tactics, including de-escalation methods, and studied different illnesses and conditions, learning how to talk with people and understand mental health-based situations.
“It’s as much a way of training as a different state of thinking,” Mueller said. “When you’re a police officer, you go in and you’re tasked with solving an immediate problem the best way you can, and often as quickly as possible. With crisis intervention, that has to change. You have to slow down. You’re dealing with a lot of unknown variables.”
Mueller is one of six officers in Winona who took the voluntary training, and has taught several classes for officers and local residents on crisis intervention. He explained that over the years, he has become close with people in the mental health community and learned a lot about how to interact with those in crisis.
“The thing I always emphasize with my students and fellow officers is slow down,” Mueller said. “When someone is in crisis, they are not even listening to you.”
Last year, a new Minnesota law went into effect that requires all 10,500 licensed peace officers in Minnesota to undergo 16 hours of CIVtraining, albeit a less-intensive version of the seminar created for yearly training. The move to mandated training for all officers loops in CIV training in the same vein as defensive and firearm training –– every three years, officers have to complete the training to retain their license.
According to police chief Paul Bostrack, this is the first year that the mandated training has been put in effect, and over the next three years, all Winona officers will undergo the training as part of their licensing. For now, officers must be taught in the Twin Cities, but the city’s goal is to have an in-house trainer in the next several years.
“It’s not only the person who is at risk of getting hurt, but the officer, as well,” Mueller explained.
The training comes at a crucial time for Minnesota officers, including those in Winona. According to data from the Winona Police Department, the number of emotional and behavioral incidents has been consistently on the rise –– from 2014 to 2018, the number of calls nearly tripled from 57 to 163.
“The amount of people in some type of mental health crisis that law enforcement, EMS, paramedics deal with … we have all seen a very significant increase in those kinds of calls, especially on the streets,” Bostrack said. Over the past 20 years or so, he added, the calls now come in four times as often.
Why the increase? According to Mueller, there are several factors. When the recession hit in 2007, many state-wide programs and funding for mental health care were cut, as costs continued to increase and the state’s resources were being spread thin.
“When they starting cutting back beds and cutting back funding for medications, alot of these people just fell through the cracks,” Mueller said.
Some choose to self-medicate, he explained, resulting in an increase of drug use among those suffering from a disability. For those with some illnesses, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, chemical abuse can make the symptoms even worse.
Mental illnesses are also just more common than ever, he added.
“One out of every four people have a mental illness sometime in their life. That’s pretty staggering,” Mueller said. “It’s alarming how many people are mentally ill, and they’re finding it more difficult to get what they need.”
Officers themselves can have difficulties with these situations, outside just having to think in a different way, Mueller added. For instance, when a pair of officers walks up to someone having a mental health crisis, the reaction is rarely one of comfort and stability.
“There’s always going to be a bit of fear, and we understand that. Officer presence can be really intimidating for people who are in mental crisis,” Mueller said. “They get so used to seeing a police officer when they are getting arrested or getting a ticket so when they are going into a crisis, it is very terrifying for them because their mind goes to ‘Did I do something wrong?’”
Because of this, CIV training is crucial for helping officers develop the skills to de-escalate situations and help those suffering with finding the help they need. Officer Anita Sobotta underwent CIV training in 2016, and explained that much of crisis intervention involves focusing on what the individual needs. While some calls may take only five minutes, mental health calls can last an hour or more.
“You have to let them vent,” Sobotta said. “It’s a fragile thing. You have to have patience and give them your attention.”
Mueller explained that in most mental health incidents, there is a series of events that officers go through. The first, and most important, is determining whether the person is a risk to themselves or others. That may be anything from being physically violent, suicidal, or even something like not eating. If they are at risk, Mueller said, the next step is to take them to the emergency room, but the goal is to either avoid that entirely or get the individual to voluntarily come along.
“There are going to be future calls, and they are going to have bad days,” Mueller said. “You don’t just want to grab somebody and take them to the hospital. There’s a big difference between forcing someone and getting someone to come with me. If they go voluntarily, the next time in crisis, it’s much easier because they may be quicker to trust that you’re here to help.”
To do this, much of the interaction revolves around communication and conversation, facilitating dialogue and understanding how the individual is feeling and what they are suffering from.
“With a drunken kid, you’re giving them instruction and telling them what to do. With mental illness, you’re listening to figure out what they need and what you can do,” Sobotta explained.
While not all incidents can be de-escalated, Bostrack explained, training all officers in how to approach these incidents is crucial for keeping everyone involved safe and keeping things from getting out of control –– especially if the incident is non-criminal.
“No call is the same. Every situation is different, so as an officer, there may be a counselor hat you’re wearing that day, or a parent hat you’re wearing that day,” Sobotta said. “It’s not necessarily a criminal matter that they’re dealing with.”
“We are not social workers, but that’s what we have to do at times,” Mueller added. “We truly are here to serve people, and we have to sometimes learn how to help different groups differently. Not everybody requires equal treatment –– some people need a higher level of help.”