Police explain response to mental health calls

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey Cmdr. Dave Borchert briefed members of the public on what the New Ulm Police Department has done to prepare for responding to mental health calls Monday at the Public Library.

NEW ULM — Members of the public got a rundown of the New Ulm Police Department’s preparation for mental health incidents.

Cmdr. Dave Borchert of the New Ulm Police Department (NUPD) briefed the public on the department’s ability to respond to mental health crises.

“I would probably say that we are far ahead for law enforcement agencies in the state of Minnesota and indeed the nation. However, very clearly, we can do better,” Borchert said.

Borchert relayed confidence in the NUPD for a number of reasons, including the relative ease of access around the county compared to larger, northern counties where it takes an officer an hour or longer to respond.

Another advantage NUPD officers have is that most of them are well-integrated in the community. The most junior officer has been around for three years.

Due to that, officers are more likely to know who they are talking to, so they have a better idea of how to safely deal with that individual.

Borchert talked about the NUPD’s partnership with the Barbara Schneider Foundation (BSF) for training in how to approach a mental health crisis.

The BSF formed in response to the death of Barbara Schneider who died when she was shot by Minneapolis police in a confrontation during a mental health crisis call, according to its website.

“Our mental health calls for service have increased dramatically in the past 20 years,” Borchert said. “If I talk to mental health practitioners at the state level, at the local level, they will agree.”

The BSF was picked partially because the New Ulm Medical Center uses it and partially because multiple officers were trained through it in the past, according to Borchert’s slide show.

Borchert wants to make this type of de-escalation training regular. Ideally he wants a Thursday training day each week where at least some officers can go through it, Borchert said.

“We know that the more times you go over it, it starts just becoming almost muscle memory and when you are in a situation, you respond in this fashion,” Borchert said. “I want that to be the same thing with mental health responses.”

One of the limiting factors with this kind of training is expense. It costs between $700 and $1,000 per officer, Borchert said. With a department of 22 licensed officers it would cost the NUPD between $15,400 and $22,000 to train everyone.

Assuming de-escalation is successful, the next challenge for a someone with a mental illness is where they get put if arrested.

“Detox might not be a good place for a lot of these individuals, we acknowledge that, nor is jail, nor is the emergency room,” Borchert said.

Borchert explained that jail is not good for people with mental illness. It can lead to repeat offenders and bullying from other inmates.

Because many mentally ill people often self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs, they can end up in detox, which does not include treatment, according to reporting from the Mankato Free Press.

The third option is being sent to the emergency room, which may already be filled with mental health patients.

The solution Borchert is excited about is a new project in Blue Earth County called the Yellow Line Project.

The project seeks to divert people with mental illnesses from ending up in jail by screening them upon arrest and setting up options that keep them out of jail, according to the Free Press article.

Borchert, whose role as a county commissioner allowed him to learn about the project, said it may come to New Ulm soon.

Additional continuing challenges Borchert listed include: limited resources and officers, criminal aspects, safety of others, lack of proper facilities and the stressful and emotional nature of a mental health crisis.

“We often respond when families familiar with the situation or other highly trained mental health professionals are experiencing an issue that they consider out of control,” Borchert said.

Going into the future, Borchert mostly argued that there needs to be an increase in the number of mental health facilities available across the state.

He used an example of how the NUPD often sends people with mental illnesses to a treatment center in Wisconsin, due to lack of in-state options.

That is expensive, as that specific center cannot be paid with Medicare funds because it is not state-licensed.

When they asked if the facility would get state licensing, the department was told “no” because the facility does not need to jump through those hoops — it is getting enough patients as is.

So, while the NUPD is fairly well-prepared for mental health calls, there is still plenty left to do, Borchert said.

Connor Cummiskey can be emailed at ccummiskey@nujournal.com.