St. Paul PD holds community mental health meeting

Event covered new Mental Health Unit

 

Some 40 people — residents and those involved in the mental health fields — gathered at the East Side Freedom Library Sept. 17 for a discussion with the St. Paul Police Department about how the department works with mental health calls. 

The event was organized to help residents better understand the newly created Mental Health Unit within the department and for the police to better understand community expectations and needs. 

 

The first response

Sgt. Jamie Sipes, who leads the Mental Health Unit, said that police are involved in mental health crises because they are often the first responders to such situations, and because police are often making the decision if someone needs to be hospitalized. He added that police are involved with the mental health discussion because of the increased scrutiny of police killings and shootings.

Sipes said that while there are questions about whether police should even be the first to respond or involved at all in mental health crises, he said the reality is that to handle situations more proactively, the St. Paul Police Department is trying to do something different. 

According to data collected by the department, calls identified as mental health crisis calls nearly doubled between 2006 and 2016. 

In 2006, there were 4,397 calls for mental health service, and a decade later that number was up to 8,704.

Sipes said there are no specific answers for the rise, but he does have theories. He said he believes one of the main reasons calls have doubled has been due to the de-stigmatization of mental health — now when someone calls 911, they may describe someone as having a mental health crisis rather than just calling to report a crime. 

He added that the way police respond to such a call is changing, too. Years ago, someone may have just been brought to jail despite going through a crisis. Now police are more likely to bring someone to a hospital to stabilize them first and deal with a crime, if there was any, later. 

Because of the increase in calls, he said it was clear the department needed to address the issue and the Mental Health Unit was one way to do so. 

 

The new unit

Sipes said the goal of the Mental Health Unit is to connect people with mental health resources, reduce the number of mental health calls, reduce the number of repeat calls, reduce the stigma of struggles with mental health, increase community and police safety and to do so with internal training and external work within the community.

The unit is currently made up of Sipes and three officers, Lori Goulet, Justin Tiffany and Marshall Titus. Sipes has been in law enforcement for 23 years, Goulet for 21, Tiffany for eight and Titus for six. 

The group of four, which was recently complimented by two social workers, will follow-up with people who recently dealt with a crisis to make sure they have the help they need, and will work to connect them with resources if they don’t. Sipes said much of their work is also doing research and finding out what services are out there and connecting with organizations providing such resources.

The pilot programs that would eventually become the Mental Health Unit began about two years ago when Sipes began the work in the department’s Eastern District, which covers the East Side. 

It started with follow-ups and referrals and with Sipes researching and connecting with local organizations that can provide mental health help. It also included getting feedback from those who were helped — including what did and didn’t work.

Some of the requests included having officers dress down — not wear their normal uniforms — because some found the official look to be intimidating. Another common request for officers when visiting for a follow-up was to have them come in unmarked vans, so as to not attract attention with a regular police car. 

Sipes said what he was wearing during the Sept. 17 meeting at the library — khaki pants, a St. Paul police uniform shirt and what looked to be a smaller weapons belt, was typical for the officers in the unit.  

After receiving support from the city council and mayor’s office last year, the unit was formally created and has been applying for grants to continue to expand and adjust programming. Grants made possible this summer the inclusion of the social workers — one is from Regions Hospital and the other is from the nonprofit People Incorporated. 

To be clear, Sipes said, the unit is not the first response to 911 calls — that still falls to regular officers. The difference is in the training — officers can call for the unit if they feel the call warrants it and when officers write up reports, they can ask for follow-ups from the unit.

If someone is in immediate danger of harming themselves, officers will still follow state statute that allows them to bring that person to a hospital.

In addition, Sipes said that by the end of this year, all officers in the department will have undergone 40 hours of crisis intervention training, in addition to continued education and training. 

 

 

Feedback

At the end of the meeting, audience members got together and talked about what was helpful and what they’d like to learn more about. 

One of the common questions was about how dispatchers take calls, relay them to officers and describe or highlight that a call may be mental health related. Many audience members said they’d like someone from dispatch to be included in future meetings. 

Sipes said that dispatch is separate from the police department, but that dispatch employees have been invited to join the department’s mental health crisis training. 

Many audience members had additional questions about police calls. Should a caller say they think someone is having a mental health crisis and how many details should they give dispatch? 

Sipes said that while he can’t speak for dispatch, he said more details are always better for a police officer coming into a new situation. Audience members also had questions about how dispatch prioritizes calls.

While future meetings have not yet been scheduled, organizations, citizens and those involved in mental health care are encouraged to reach out to the department to schedule meetings to find out more. 

The department can be contacted through the St. Paul Police Department’s Community Engagement Unit at 651-266-5485, or send an email to sppd-communityengagementunit@ci.stpaul.mn.us.

To connect directly with the Mental Health Unit, call Sgt. Jamie Sipes at 651-266-5840 or send an email to jamie.sipes@ci.stpaul.mn.us.

 

- Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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