New police unit will work tough mental health cases

Photo by John Gessner

Burnsville police Capt. Don Stenger, left, and Sgt. Max Yakovlev oversee the new Community Engagement and Mental Health Unit.

Number of calls ‘through the roof’

While deskbound last year by an on-duty shoulder injury, Burnsville police patrol Sgt. Max Yakovlev overheard officers’ frustration with the volume of mental health crisis calls coming in — many involving the same people on repeat.

“What I was overhearing is officers would say, ‘Man, I wish we could do more,’ ” Yakovlev said.

He spoke with Chief Tanya Schwartz, who gave Yakovlev the go-ahead to study solutions. He’s now in charge of the department’s three-person Community Engagement and Mental Health Unit, which launched Jan. 3.

The unit is a restructured version of the Community Resource Unit. It’s the department’s chief contact for people suffering from mental illness, chemical dependency and homelessness.

“The data is through the roof with mental health calls and trying to address those needs, and that’s why we reformulated this division, to more directly and proactively address that,” said Yakovlev’s supervisor, Capt. Don Stenger.

As total police calls in Burnsville remained relatively stable from 2010 through 2019, mental health calls nearly doubled, according to the department.

Police responded to 589 mental health crisis and suicide calls from Jan. 1 through Oct. 20 of last year.

“You can try to figure out why this is happening,” Stenger said. “I don’t know that we know, but we’ve got to deal with it.”

The new unit’s aim is to reduce the number and severity of calls by working with the people in crisis, their families, group homes, the county and mental health professionals.

The department tried unsuccessfully last year to secure an embedded social worker through a Dakota County pilot program. Yakovlev and Stenger said the department welcomes community and business donations to help fund a social worker.

“There’s no new funding that has gone with this unit at this point,” Stenger said.

Yakovlev has spent many hours on painstaking follow-up to several tough cases, even before the unit officially launched.

A recent case involves a 21-year-old man who is schizophrenic, suffers bipolar and other disorders, is homeless after being banished from his parents’ place and doesn’t take needed medication, Yakovlev said. He’s also been addicted to methamphetamine since age 16.

“In the last week patrol officers dealt with him three times in total because he was running in the middle of the road or on the freeway,” Yakovlev said Jan. 15. “The question became, is this a mental health issue or a drug issue? My argument in talking to the doctors was it’s both. He’s medicating himself with drugs to keep the voices under control, but it is a mental health issue.”

Another case involves a group home client prone to violence against staff and fellow residents. He recently sprayed a residents with bleach, Yakovlev said.

“The question became, is this an arrest thing or is this a mental health thing?” he said.

“We could charge him,” Stenger said. “Is it going to help matters? There is sometimes some rationale to charging people to get them more court-ordered medication or court-ordered counseling. We’re not looking to lock these people up.”

The group home client has a team around him, including a social worker, a case worker and his mother, and with Yakovlev they made a plan to improve his behavior.

It didn’t work. Yakovlev concluded the man needs a setting more controlled than a group home.

“That’s what we’ve been working on this week with his caseworkers,” he said.

A criminal charge did work in the case of a man in his 60s who suffers from a traumatic brain injury and lives with his parents. After nine months of serial 911 calls, during which Yakovlev urged the man to call him directly, he was charged with interfering with 911 services.

Now he’s properly medicated, Yakovlev said.

“The goal was not to charge him,” the 23-year Burnsville police veteran said. “My goal was to get him court-ordered help so he is not seeing things and not thinking people are after him. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Last week Yakovlev spent 40 minutes on the phone with a woman driving through Burnsville back home to Iowa, who called 911 convinced her car was bugged and she was being followed.

“She also talked about that she’s an avid drug user,” Yakovlev said. “Those sometimes go hand in hand — for example, when people use meth, and they try to substitute that for an actual drug that would help them with their mental illness, it kind of exaggerates everything that’s happening to them.”

The Community Engagement and Mental Health Unit, which retains the duties of the old Community Resource Unit, will be staffed by Yakovlev and officers Ben Archambault and Erica Huston.

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