Mental health calls continue to rise 

A continued rise in mental health crisis calls has the Burnsville Police Department looking to expand a response unit it launched just six months ago.

The department wants to more than double the size of its Behavioral Health Unit, which was begun in January through a restructuring of existing police staff.

It’s not enough as demand mounts, police officials say. With 398 mental health calls already logged through the first six months of 2020, the department projects 796 by year’s end — an all-time high in a caseload that has grown from 290 calls in 2010. Last year there were 713.

Response and follow-up to the calls — some particularly dangerous — can be multifaceted and time-consuming, officials say.

“There’s still so much need out there; we’ve just begun to get into this work,” Police Chief Tanya Schwartz told the City Council Tuesday.

The department seeks to add a full-time sergeant, two full-time officers, a part-time civilian data specialist and a full-time licensed social worker through Dakota County Social Services.

Current staffing consists of a sergeant, an officer and help from the department’s crime analyst. A county social worker — the key to the department’s “co-responder” model — works with the department three days a week, Schwartz said. Police want those services five days a week, she said.

The new positions aren’t included in early talks on the 2022 city budget, but council members signaled a willingness to consider them.

“I understand the ask — I certainly do,” Council Member Dan Kealey said.

The department has already applied for a federal grant to fund 75% of the cost of two additional officers for three years. The application is through the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing.

And some of the city’s $8 million share of federal COVID-19 relief through the American Rescue Plan Act approved by Congress is likely available.

“There’s lots of flexibility with the ARPA funds with regards to mental health, disparate impacts, public safety,” City Manager Melanie Lee said.

The current Behavioral Health Unit, which had no additional hires and was created by restructuring the department’s Community Resource Unit, cost the city $176,735 in the first half of 2021, according to the department. Schwartz said the two units should be made separate.

Police officials described for council members two examples of the Behavioral Health Unit’s work.

One involved a 48-year-old man with paranoid schizophrenia and multiple personalities, one of them violent, said Sgt. Max Yakovlev, who oversees the unit. Police responded to calls from churches and mosques in the area about the man “soliciting and calling them ‘soft targets,’ ” a department report said.

Members of the man’s family contacted police and warned them of his escalating behaviors, including frequent drunken driving, Yakovlev said. Earlier in the year he had attacked his brother with a knife.

The man was “acting out his delusions, and that’s scary,” Yakovlev said.

“He was anti-law enforcement — he didn’t want any help,” he said.

Working with the man’s brother, police developed a response plan. The man’s family took the lead in safely taking him into protective custody. He remains in long-term treatment.

Police rode along in the ambulance as the man was taken to the hospital in “by far the most challenging case so far this year,” Yakovlev said.

“In my opinion, for what it’s worth, I think we did prevent a lot of different things from happening and escalating,” he said. “The intervention was there, and it was perfect.”

Another case involved a 20-year-old homeless man with schizophrenia whose parents live in Burnsville. He was staying in a motel on Burnsville Parkway and could sometimes be seen lying in the grass at a nearby gas station, Yakovlev said.

He wasn’t taking his medication, had no health insurance and was on a 60-month waiting list for mental health treatment, Yakovlev said.

Police met with the man’s mother. The police unit and Dakota County Social Services connected him to insurance, a mental health appointment and medication within a week. They helped him find housing, and he hasn’t needed police services since.

“None of that would have happened if she (county social worker Amy Johnson) wasn’t embedded with us,” Yakovlev said.

Yakovlev said the unit’s officers wear casual uniforms and drive unmarked cars to mute any negative reactions to police.

Police involvement in mental health cases is part of the roiling national debate over police-community relations, according to Schwartz.

“Some people don’t want police involved,” the chief said.

But where public safety is involved, there’s a place for police, she said.

“We’re not social workers, but we want to help — we want to be a part of the solution.”

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