Minneapolis small businesses call for mobile mental health response teams

    Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

    More than 75 small businesses in Minneapolis have signed onto a letter calling on city and county leaders to create a mental health emergency response team that can respond to 911 calls around the clock without an armed police officer.

    If the city and county agree, Minneapolis could join a short but growing list of cities that are offloading mental health crises from police departments.

    “Many small business owners and staff are put in the unfortunate position of being forced to call the police for interactions that do not truly require an armed response, simply because no other option currently exists,” the letter reads. “Our staff are not and cannot be equipped to fully resolve instances of patrons who are under the influence of serious substances, are experiencing a mental health crisis, or are significantly disrupting service and refuse to leave.”

    The letter comes as the city prepares its 2021 budget and faces pressure to show significant changes to funding the Police Department after the police killing of George Floyd in May.

    Anna Schmitz, community manager at Fair State Brewing Cooperative, which led the effort, said they plan to deliver the letter to city and county leaders on Thursday afternoon and are asking for a clear response to the idea and what funding they’ll propose to make it happen.

    “The time has come for this to happen,” Schmitz said. “This is a really common sense issue.”

    The letter is the result of months of research and conversations among small business owners, who reflected on their own relationship to police as protests and civil unrest swept across the country this summer, Schmitz said.

    A few cities across the country have recently created unarmed units to respond to crisis calls like the one Fair State and other small businesses are asking for. San Francisco deployed a new unit this month that includes paramedics and mental health professionals.

    City data show mental health crises are the third most common reason for high priority 911 calls and are time consuming, with patrol officers spending an average of 44 minutes on such calls. As the letter points out, surveys of police officers show they often don’t feel equipped to deal with mental health crises.

    Minneapolis launched a pilot in 2017, which pairs a social worker with a police officer. It has since become a permanent unit, although not funded to respond in every precinct around the clock. Mayor Jacob Frey has proposed increasing funding for the co-responder program by 50% to $685,000 next year, which would expand coverage but not fund 24/7 response.

    Schmitz said they would like to see mental health professionals deployed without an armed “co-responder.”

    “Our feeling is that there is also a need for a response that does not include a police officer,” Schmitz said. “There is a whole realm of calls where a police officer response is not necessary and those policing resources don’t need to be used.”

    The city will hold a public hearing on the recommended budget on Nov. 16.

    Max Nesterak
    Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently 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.