Minneapolis mental health responder unit stalled by police inaction on background checks

By: - October 13, 2021 6:03 am

A Minneapolis Police Department squad car. Photo by Tony Webster.

The city of Minneapolis hoped to launch a new behavioral health response unit in August to send mental health professionals rather than police to non-violent emergencies across the city, around the clock.

Last month, however, the head of the department in charge of getting the program off the ground learned the Minneapolis Police Department never completed background checks for the mental health responder applicants, despite previously agreeing to do them.

“Unbeknownst to us, they dropped (doing background checks) in the middle of the process,” said Brian Smith, director of the city’s Office of Performance and Innovation, or OPI.

A spokesperson for the police department said the department didn’t stop in the middle of the process — they never started. Smith said more than four weeks passed between when the police department said they could do it and when he found out they wouldn’t.

The incomplete background checks have created a bottleneck because without them, new hires can’t be trained in 911 dispatch and radio use.

“So this has really put the timeline in jeopardy,” Smith said.

The pilot program, which will be run by Canopy Mental Health and Consulting, is now scheduled to start by the end of next month.

The latest cause of delay signals a rough road ahead in the city’s efforts to roll out a new public safety initiative outside the purview of the police department — even as it needs the department’s support.

Smith said he only found out about the delay when applicants told him they received emails from the police department saying they were no longer able to do the background checks, which include taking fingerprints to search state and federal criminal databases.

Deputy Police Chief Amelia Huffman said the police department needs to prioritize background checks for police recruits.

“We currently are operating with ambitious hiring plans and timelines to ensure the continuity of public safety services and comply with the order on the Spann lawsuit to take any and all action necessary to employ 730 sworn officers by June 30,” Huffman wrote in an email, referring to a July order by a Hennepin County judge requiring the city to increase its number of police officers.

The Minneapolis Police Department is now down roughly 300 officers — to 588 — since the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which fueled efforts to dismantle the department and replace it with a new department of public safety as well as alternative public safety responses.

A spokesperson for the police department, Cyndi Barrington, denied a lack of communication with Smith’s department, writing in an email that police “staff from the executive team have been part of the ongoing discussions with OPI as they work to create this new mental health response.”

Barrington said police told OPI that the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s vendor could do the background checks instead.

Smith turned to the BCA in late September and hopes they’ll be able to complete the checks in about four weeks.

Although the behavioral health response unit is designed to be an alternative to police response, it still needs the support of the police department, including for backup if mental health emergencies turn dangerous.

The success of the mental health response unit could be hamstrung by resistance from the police department, which has been politically besieged since Floyd’s murder.

The police department and the behavioral health response unit could end up under the same department leader if voters approve Question 2 on the Nov. 2 ballot to create a new department of public safety. Otherwise, the two efforts will continue under different leaders.

The background checks haven’t been the only — or even most significant — cause of delay for the mental health response unit.

The effort was funded by the City Council in December, and Smith said it took longer than expected to set up an entirely new program, which requires everything from hiring and training new staff to ordering custom response vans.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.