by CHRIS ROGERS
A new proposal would add a different kind of arrow to Winona’s first responder quiver: police, fire, ambulance, and alternative crisis response. Alternative crisis response — as the proposed program has been dubbed — is an outgrowth of split votes by the Winona City Council this fall to consider augmenting the Winona Police Department’s (WPD) officers with social workers. The program would send confidential, unarmed professionals, who are not part of the police department, to respond to certain low-level calls instead of police. They would also be available to assist police as requested.
After several weeks of private meetings, a committee of citizens, social service agencies, and city officials, including WPD Chief Deputy Jay Rasmussen and Winona City Council member Eileen Moeller, have nearly finalized their proposal for the City Council to consider next month.
“I think this is the right thing to do for our police department and our community. It’s going to help police, and it’s going to help people,” Rasmussen said.
Under the plan so far, two professionals — not necessarily social workers, but possibly mental health professionals or case managers — would work evening or overnight shifts and respond to calls such as welfare checks, low-level domestic disturbances, and mental health calls, according to Moeller and Advocacy Center of Winona (formerly Women’s Resources Center) Executive Director Crystal Hegge, who helped develop the proposal. Welfare checks refer to requests for police to simply check that someone is OK, and in 2019, WPD officers responded to nearly 700 such calls, plus another 192 calls to help people in emotional-behavioral distress, according to Ramussen.
While the WPD has been proactive in getting its officers mental-health-first-aid training, patrol officers don’t have advanced mental health training and often simply don’t have the time to help people find lasting solutions, whether it be applying for health insurance or finding mental health care. That is where alternative crisis response would come in, Moeller said. “They can provide resource connections and short-term case management, meaning that they will assist people in the moment and perhaps for a week or two in making sure they get connected to the resources they need or want,” she explained.
“There are some of these calls that the police department is going to continue to go to,” Rasmussen said. “There are a lot where it’s necessary for the police to show up. But there’s a lot of calls where the police are not the most appropriate people to show up.”
Hegge said she hopes the program will provide a new set of resources to better address the root causes of some repeat calls and to provide another option for people uncomfortable with law enforcement or who simply don’t want to get the police involved. “For people who don’t want somebody arrested, or they don’t want an armed officer to arrive but they just want the situation to get better, this could be a great response for them,” she stated. The director of the anti-domestic-violence center added, “What some survivors want is they want violence to stop without necessarily having someone arrested. Now, absolutely, there are sometimes where someone who is being harmed wants and arrest and a prosecution, but sometimes that is absolutely not the case.”
While domestic violence cases outweigh every other type violent crime in Winona County, there are still hundreds of cases that do not get reported to law enforcement, according to the advocacy center. Having an option other than police response might encourage some survivors of domestic assault to call sooner, Hegge said. “A lot of times people call law enforcement when it’s pretty bad, and this could be an opportunity to call when it’s a little bad or not a situation where there’s no other option,” she explained.
Sometimes victims or people in need of help hesitate to call police for fear of getting in trouble for other issues, Moeller and Hegge said. Moeller explained, “Say you have a domestic violence situation and the parent, who is the victim, is trying to take care of their children and maybe they’re trying to relocate or get them out of the house or whatever, and maybe they were drinking the night of the incident, and they’re now terrified that now not only have they been a victim of domestic abuse, but they know if a social worker knows they were drinking, that they would take their kids away from them. We’ve heard from our [Winona County] social workers that is never the goal, that would be unlikely to happen, but the fear is still there.” A key part of the alternative response program would be confidentiality between responders and people calling for help, she added. “So the victim, they feel much more safe talking to someone who is not obligated to report all of the details of their case back to the state or the county,” Moeller stated.
“We always want to help the person first,” Rasmussen said of the WPD. “Rarely do we try to handcuff our way out of an issue. We want to help people, that’s first and foremost, but I think it’s just there are some situations where really it shouldn’t be a police officer addressing an issue. It should be somebody with a mental health licensure, someone with specific training … We train for these types of things, but the fact is, it’s just part of a lot of situations police officers have to be trained for, so if we can get some people who are trained specifically for the type of issues these people face, we should get them out there.” The veteran officer added, “The hardest part for me, is I want to help people. This is me stepping back and saying, ‘The best way to help people is not always us.’”
Some domestic violence calls can be very dangerous. One of the few line-of-duty deaths among Winona-area law enforcement came in 1980, when a Winona County Sheriff’s Department investigator was killed while responding to a domestic violence call. A Lake City police officer was fatally in 2011 domestic violence call. Winona officials said that, at least to start with, dispatchers and police would likely err on the side of sending police to any potentially dangerous calls. As the alternative response team gets more established and dispatchers and police have more experience with the team, they will be able to better identify with what kinds of calls are appropriate and safe, Moeller said. Hegge stressed, “If people call and they are needing a police officer, a police officer will still show up.”
The proposal is estimated to cost the city $225,000 — enough for salaries, benefits, and some equipment. In a split vote, the City Council agreed to raise the tentative 2021 property tax levy to fund the program. The City Council considered that move a placeholder in the draft budget, giving the alternative response committee time to develop a more detailed proposal before a final City Council vote on whether to keep the program in the 2021 budget or scrap it. Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said a informational presentation on the program may come before the City Council as soon as December 7, and a final vote on the 2021 budget and the program will likely happen at the council’s last meeting of the year, on December 21. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for that meeting. Visit www.cityofwinona.com for more details.
If approved, hiring and implementation of the program will likely take at least a few months, city officials said. The city is in the middle of negotiating a potential agreement with Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center to provide contracted employees for the alternative response team. Moeller said the program might not be fully implemented until late 2021. “It’ll take some time, but we want to do it right, so it’s worth taking some time,” she stated.
Other cities in Minnesota and across the U.S. have had success with similar programs. In fact, the proposal has many parallels to the mental-health-specific Southeast Minnesota Crisis Response, which already provides a type of mental-health-professionals-as-first-responders service, except that the territory and distance that program covers has delayed response times to some calls. The local program would provide a faster response and would handle non-mental-health-related calls, as well. The WPD considered a concept similar to alternative crisis response a few years ago, before opting to focus its attention on launching a new community outreach officers program.
Correction: A previous version of this story described the City Council vote to budget funds for alternative response as a 4-3 vote. One vote in August to budget $300,000 was 4-3. A later vote to budget $225,000 was 5-2.