When five people in the throes of a mental health crisis were killed in incidents with police, Michelle Gross said she knew Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) had to act.
CUAPB was created 22 years ago following the shooting death of Charles “Abuka” Sanders by Minneapolis police.
As CUAPB has grown from its first meeting at Hosmer Library in Minneapolis, so have the tasks it has undertaken.
“When it got to the end of the year and there were five in a row in the state in the midst of a mental health crisis whose lives were lost, I just said this is too much,” stated Gross, who is president of CUAPB.
CUAPB is made up of all volunteers who meet each Saturday. Work groups meet throughout the week. They are located at 4200 Cedar Ave. S.
One of the volunteers, Bill Czech, had been working on the issue of co-response for mental health calls for quite some time, according to Gross. “He had been working with counties and municipalities for a while. We started to put together this white paper, and we spent several months researching.
“We learned we have terrific resources already,” Gross said. “All southern counties had access to mobile mental health crisis respondents. We have this resource, but people aren’t using it.”
She said that if people wanted mental health crisis responders to come to their house, they had to know the “secret magic phone number.” She added that the number was listed in a corner on one of the webpages for the Minnesota Department of Health. “It wasn’t realistic,” she said. “And 911 was not flipping those calls.”
She said CUAPB went to the legislature and, in the 2021 session, was able to get Travis’ Law passed. “The law requires 911 to pass calls to mental health as the prime responders for mental health crisis calls, unless there is a weapon or a threat,” Gross explained. “Even if there is a weapon or a threat, we want a co-response so the police can secure the area and then back away and let the mental health responders take care of the situation.”
Travis’ Law was named for Travis Jordan, a young man experiencing a mental health crisis in Minneapolis in 2019. According to Gross, he had a knife and was suicidal. “The police came and started screaming at him,” Gross related. “One cop called his supervisor while the other one kept screaming. Travis shut the window and tried to ignore him. Travis then emerged from the front door holding the knife, and was shot and killed.”
Gross said his mother is suing the police. “Her testimony was powerful and heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s sad to hear people say Travis’ Law doesn’t matter. It is about a new fight to expect the correct response.”
Gross stated that the good thing about Minnesota is that not only are there good resources, but there are already good laws in place so that mental health responders have to be practitioners. Psychologists run the team, with other practitioners in place, and also peer counselors. “I like that they have to be quality teams,” she added. “They can stabilize a person in their home, or get people to a program right away. There are times when someone does need to be hospitalized.
“The way to address this in the community is with people who can help as opposed to cops, whose main thing is to wrestle a person into submission and then take him or her to the hospital. We are wasting ambulances, and the person is not getting the optimal care. We need to improve that, and we need to get the police out of the picture because those encounters can be deadly,” she said. Once Travis’ Law was passed, Gross said CUAPB held workshops bringing in professional experts from around the country.
CANOPY BEHAVIOR CRISIS RESPONSE CAME AFTER TRAVIS’ LAW
Travis’ Law was passed prior to the Canopy Behavioral Crisis Response being put together in Minneapolis, according to Gross. She said Canopy was in some ways a response to Cope, the Hennepin County mental health crisis program.
“Unfortunately, we have some problems with Cope that we need to fix if we can,” she noted.
Gross said embedded social workers in the process are well and good, but they are actually follow-up and not going out with the primary responders.
“For us, that’s a problem,” she said. “Less than 1 percent of mental health calls involve weapons or a threat. So in 99.1 percent of these calls, there is no need for police to be involved. The mental health crisis responders should be the primary responders. They can always call the police later if they are needed.”
RAMSEY COUNTY LEADING THE WAY
She said it is one of the important things to try and get the counties to that place. “Ramsey County is already there,” Gross said. “They were the leaders in the whole state and were some of the presenters at our workshops. Not only do they know how to respond to mental health crises, but they have a whole package put together.
“They have a facility for people who need to be taken somewhere. They have a walk-in mental health facility if you feel something’s going wrong for you. There are all kinds of these availabilities all around the counties,” Gross said.
She cited Dakota County and its early adoption of Travis’ Law. “In the first three months, Dakota County deflected 88 percent of calls to the mental health responders, and no police were involved,” Gross claimed.
Mendota Heights police have been told they do not need to respond to mental health crisis calls, and they have chosen not to, according to Gross. “It has been a harder battle with some of the other counties, and we have gone out into the communities talking about how Travis’ Law needs to be implemented,” Gross said. She noted that if an agency does not implement Travis’ Law, that agency is held responsible. “We’re waiting for the first case to come through,” Gross said, “and that may be Claudia’s case.”
GAPS IN MINNEAPOLIS SYSTEM
Regarding CUAPB’s concerns with responses to mental health crisis calls, Czech said he and his sister had engaged with Minneapolis and St. Paul, and for a while Brooklyn Park, to promote co-responders back in 2015. He said that if there was no alternative response to the police, they at least wanted a co-response with mental health professionals. “That got a start, which was good, and it evolved to alternative responses in the cities,” Czech said.
“The public does not understand what co-response is,” Czech continued. “When they go together, one of the responders does not go a day later or four hours later, they show up at the same time. Some public officials have tried to redefine it.
“There’s a second problem, and I wish the media would key on some of this stuff,” Czech continued. “When there is a push to get alternative responses, the focus is on how many calls are taken. The focus should be on the most important calls that need professional experience the most, not welfare checks.”
Czech said Minneapolis is very much about how many calls are taken away from the police, but he feels if these are welfare checks and the police are going to the important calls, the priorities are off base.
“People with expertise are being hired and should be used,” he said. “It will save lives, and it will save money, as well. What is important to me is that they understand these calls are not just to take away from the police, but part of the mental health system now.”
Gross said she likes to think of it as an expanded response, not an alternative response. “We need to have a panel with a button not just for police or the fire department or the ambulance, but we need to expand those buttons to cover other issues. The police do not need to deal with mental health crises or drugs or homelessness.”
Czech said that Los Angeles, Houston and other cities understand the situation. “We would like to see a multi-layered response system, with social workers and forensic psychiatric teams. It works better if you have an accounting system that includes all these services, so people can be helped and not have so many problems they have to come back.”
“That’s why we like Ramsey County; they have layers of response teams. The emphasis is getting people the best care and responses they need. And they end up saving money,” Gross stated.
“We want to go to the legislature and get more funding for mental health teams,” Gross continued. She mentioned Secure Transport, which instead of an ambulance, is “kind of like a taxi, with the driver trained in mental health and first aid. It’s very inexpensive, and you would save a ton of money,” she said. She said a person suffering a mental health crisis could be stabilized and transported, if necessary, without the need for police intervention. “This kind of seamless network is what is needed,” she said. “Minneapolis made a stab at it, but it’s not 24-7 and connecting with the rest of county services. This one little team is not connected to the rest, and that’s our complaint.”
Czech added his concern that Minneapolis has not done a good job of collaborating with Hennepin County. He cited a story from the New Yorker entitled, “Million Dollar Murray.” Czech said the story was about all the disconnected services a fellow named Murray received, ending up with spending of a million dollars. Murray was one of the 10 percent who used 80 percent of services. In the end, Czech said, New York could have paid for an apartment and care for Murray at far less expense. Czech emphasized providing services in a smart way that would improve the care and ultimately result in less costs.
Czech related that he and some others visited Duluth, the first place in Minnesota that had co-responders. The city had been told it couldn’t be done, that there would be danger in putting clinicians in harm’s way on these responses.
“We knew, and we found out through more research, that concern was bogus,” one of the Duluth police responded. “Many programs going back to the 70s and 80s never had a fatality or injury. That’s a cop-out. The officers secure a scene before co-responders are put anywhere near a person.”
Czech said that looking at similar programs throughout this country and in Europe, it hurts to hear how easily it could be done and how easily it is dismissed.
Claudia Sago’s son, Jomari, is 43, and he has been functioning in society with a family and was employed until COVID-19 ended his job. The loss of his job, separation from his wife and homelessness has taken a toll on him, according to Sago. He had been diagnosed as bipolar. “He had a mental breakdown on June 6,” she said. “He was seeking help to get his child to safety, because he knew he was in trouble.” She said she had been unable to get a complete police report, but she was told he was seeking help and a paramedic showed up. Her son changed his mind and said he did not want to go to the hospital. He did not want to be away from his child. “He had told them he was suicidal, and there was an altercation between him and one of the paramedics,” Sago related. “The police came, and they said my son was struggling and they tased him. He fell and hit his head and suffered a traumatic brain injury. They did emergency surgery for the bleeding in his brain, and he was in a coma for 30 days.” Sago said the family was not notified until two days after the incident. He is still in the hospital, being moved from ICU to recovery to a psychiatric ward. She said he is waiting to be released for traumatic brain damage rehabilitation. Sago was referred by a social worker to CUAPB to try and help her get the complete police report. She was also trying to get video and body cam footage so she could see what happened to her son. “We hooked Claudia up to an attorney for her son, and he was finally able to access the police report,” said Michelle Gross of CUAPB. “That is when we learned the behavioral response unit showed up and either brought the MPD with them or called them. It is unclear as to why.” Sago said she has pictures of her son from the time he was in ICU up until now. She said her son is being charged with fourth degree assault upon the paramedic. “There was no injury, some bruises to his face,” she stated. She has sent a letter and the documentation she has been able to get to Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office. “They want my son in court next month, but he is in no condition to do that. This whole thing has just been heart-wrenching.” “All of this because her son called for assistance,” said Michelle Gross of CUAPB. “Claudia came to us to primarily help her get the police report. But this is bigger than the police report. “How dare they not treat him correctly? This was a functional person in our society, and they took this away from him. I am just furious. He was not armed and was not threatening anyone but himself.”
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