After reporting on the suicides of four young men within two years, including three who were Eden Prairie High School students, and learning that suicidal ideation in young women was rapidly increasing, Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) began working on Silent Struggles in April 2023. EPLN presents an eight-part series on the critical issues surrounding mental health and suicidal ideation through the eyes of survivors, and provides resources available for families, friends, and those who serve our young people in Eden Prairie. Follow our weekly reports at eplocalnews.org. This is Part 6.
As psychiatrists call for national standards in how police interact with juveniles in mental health crises, the Eden Prairie Police Department is leaning into mandatory officer training and interagency communications as the best local approach to lasting, positive outcomes.
“Training is huge,” said Sgt. Bryan Dean, an Eden Prairie High School graduate who works in the Juvenile Investigations Division of the police department. “It helps make our officers, and everyone in the department, a better officer out there, handling these calls.”
Although these complex and time-consuming emergency calls to police are not high in number, responding to them is a process, often with multiple touches involving multiple people from different organizations who are required to communicate well with each other in order to find good results for the juvenile involved.
The police department logged 34 juvenile “person-in-crisis” calls in the first half of 2023, compared to 31 all of last year and 31 in 2021. “Person in crisis” is a formal designation adopted locally a few years ago to match the terminology used in other communities.
Though this year’s number is up, “Crisis calls can fluctuate so much,” said Dean, noting that the small sample can be influenced by whether or not just a few young people get the resources they need, or medications or therapy that work.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a trend,” he added about the 2023 increase. “You’ll see minor fluctuations in the numbers. I can’t say that you’re going to dramatically see changes.”
Each mental health call is different, says Dean, whose job includes working with school resource officers, who are police officers that work in the schools.
“You see everything,” he said.
The juvenile in question, when police respond to a call, may be calm or agitated. Same with parents and siblings. A referral to helpful resources might be the result. Or, hospitalization.
“Our goal, every time we go to a call, is, ‘Let’s be able to talk to this person; let’s just have a conversation,’” Dean said. “Separate them from parents for a couple hours and let things calm down, or it might be just talking to them, hearing them, and saying ‘We may have to go to the hospital today and talk to somebody.’ That’s always our main goal,” so restraints or transportation to a hospital aren’t necessary.
De-escalation is key, and built into officer training, Dean says. It starts with a rookie officer getting help from a field training officer. Then, there’s the crisis intervention training all officers go through – a 40-hour class, with eight-hour recertification every three years. On top of that is monthly training that can touch on the same issues, with actors playing roles to make the exercises mirror real-life situations, such as bipolar disorders or threats of suicide.
Lots of moving parts
In addition to mandatory officer training, the police department has a mental health unit of 4-6 officers and an embedded social worker. The unit is a secondary assignment for the officers involved. It’s a team that can perform follow-ups to person-in-crisis calls, with officers assigned to check back with the family to see how things are going and whether additional help is needed.
Additionally, Dean often makes school resource officers aware of person-in-crisis calls affecting students in their schools, for additional follow-up.
“That’s a big part of what our resource officers do, is just building those connections with kids, building that trust and saying, ‘If you are having a bad day or you’re feeling suicidal, reach out to me,’” said Dean.
The current four school resource officers – two at Eden Prairie High School (EPHS), one at Central Middle School (CMS), one spread between elementary and other schools – are full-time people, working with school staff and students. Costs are shared by the city and school district.
Schools have their own embedded social workers, too. “You have teams from different areas working together on, ‘What can we do to help make this child and their family safe?’” Dean said.
It’s a lot of moving parts. Dean’s job is to create good communication between individuals. Morning roll calls, including with the department’s embedded social worker and school resource officers, help, he says.
“They’re obviously all trained professionals, so they work well with each other to where it’s just a natural part of what police work is: networking and communication,” added Dean.
APA calls for national standards
How police interact with juveniles experiencing mental health crises is of particular concern to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which last year called for national standards to help protect youth against violence by law enforcement.
The association noted that juveniles are less able to regulate their emotions, compared to adults, and their resistance can invite higher levels of police force. They called for:
- Responding first with health care and mental health workers to non-criminal calls, such as mental health crises, wellness checks, and nonviolent domestic disputes.
- Limits to the use of force on children, including use of handcuffs when responding to non-criminal calls.
- Mandatory training for law enforcement personnel who respond to mental health crises on effective, developmentally appropriate communication that emphasizes de-escalation.
- And, resources to historically underfunded and underserved communities to break the cycle of poverty and criminalization of racial minority children and adolescents.
Eden Prairie Police have little say in breaking the cycle of poverty, but Dean says the department is performing well on the APA’s first three recommendations.
The department, he notes, requires crisis intervention training and additional monthly training, including de-escalation training. The department teaches officers to minimize the need for force and restraints. And, it works closely with health care professionals such as department- and school-embedded social workers and resources such as Hennepin County Family Response & Stabilization Services.
A recent focus of online training for officers was autism in juveniles, and how to work with these youth. Considerations with juveniles include whether or not to respond with sirens and lights, which can be triggering to a youth with a disorder.
While the police have a mental health unit, there is no group specific to juveniles with mental health issues. But, Dean says every officer has an understanding of what these calls entail and how to respond to them.
“That child is maybe having their worst day of their life, so we’re going in and building their trust, not lying to them, and saying, ‘We might have to go to the hospital and talk to a therapist tonight, and this is why,’ explaining what that will look like, taking the scary aspect out of it,” said Dean. “If they have to go in an ambulance, we’re explaining to them, ‘This is what the ambulance is going to be like. This is what the medics might ask you. And once you get to the hospital, it’s going to look like this.’
“That’s why these calls take so long,” he added.
“We don’t have a written policy” on covering these calls, Dean said. “It comes down to our training and how we respond. There’s bits and pieces that fall into different policies – say, emergency driving or what does the use of force look like?
“We never want to put a child in handcuffs. But if they’re an active threat to themselves or attacking parents or officers, restraints are our last resort. But that falls under a use-of-force policy.”
The department has an award-winning juvenile crime diversion program that also serves as an alternative to arrest.
If the city were to commit more resources to helping juveniles in crisis, it would probably be in the areas of added social workers or more school-resource officers, according to Dean.
Police Chief Matt Sackett said on Sept. 19 that hiring an additional police officer whose time would be split between school duties and community outreach is in the department’s 2024 budget, yet to be given final approval by the city council. More social worker help is not currently in the 2024 or ‘25 tentative budgets but remains a possibility, he added.
“The changes I see are just adding more resources to where we need to fill those gaps,” said Dean.
For the time being, however, Dean feels as if the department’s “team” approach is serving youth in crisis well.
“We have a very good grasp,” he said. “The calls are very challenging, and they change. That’s why we continue to train, continue to learn from other calls, and figure out the best way to handle them.”
Editor’s note: The role of local nonprofit agencies in providing mental health services is explored in Part 7 of EPLN’s Silent Struggles series. It will be published Nov. 21.
If you or a loved one is in crisis, please call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text “MN” to 741741. Trained counselors are available to help 24/7/365.
If you or a loved one is at imminent risk, please contact 911 and ask for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer.
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