The shooting death of Travis Jordan, a mentally ill man, by Minneapolis police in 2018 led the Legislature this year to pass “Travis’s Law,” requiring 911 dispatchers to send mental health crisis workers to a critical law enforcement situation whenever possible.
But Minneapolis officials have indicated that mental health workers won’t be called on until police have secured the scene and there is no threat of violence. And advocates of the new law say that the way Minneapolis officials plan to deploy emergency response teams might well not have saved Jordan’s life had it been in effect at the time.
“What we’re trying to do is stop getting people killed by police,” said Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, who wrote the original language for Travis’s Law.
Brian Smith, director of the Office of Performance Innovation for Minneapolis, said most 911 calls about emotionally disturbed people don’t involve a threat of violence or a weapon. When they do, he said, the city won’t put its mental health workers “at risk with someone holding a knife.”
Across Minnesota, 911 dispatchers are being trained when to call police, when to notify mental crisis teams and how the two would be coordinated. But well before the bill was introduced, Minneapolis was developing its own plan.
The City Council has contracted with Canopy Mental Health and Consulting of Richfield to provide behavioral crisis response (BCR) teams for cases in which 911 dispatchers identify a mental health issue. A key reason Canopy was chosen is because it is considered culturally competent to deal with the city’s diverse populations.
In the Minneapolis program, expected to launch this month, teams operating in pairs will be available from 7:30 a.m. to midnight weekdays. After more staffers are hired, the schedule will expand to weekends, then around the clock, seven days a week next year.
“We will not look like police officers, and we will not look like community members,” said Candace Hanson, Canopy’s program manager for the Roots Behavior Response Team in Minneapolis. Staffers will wear uniforms or T-shirts with the words, “Behavioral Crisis Response” on the back.
“If the police ask us to come, we would go once the scene has been secured for safety,” she said.
The scene on Morgan Avenue
Jordan, 36, was threatening suicide and talking about getting a gun on Nov. 9, 2018, when a friend notified 911. Two Minneapolis police officers were dispatched to 3731 Morgan Av. N., saw Jordan through a window and told him to come outside. Swearing at them, he eventually went to the front door. But when officers saw through a window that he was carrying a large knife, they told him to stay there.
Jordan walked out anyway. When he moved toward an officer after refusing demands to drop the knife, police shot him. The confrontation was over in minutes.
The officers were exonerated following an investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and a review by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, saying Jordan’s actions posed an immediate threat to their safety.
Smith said that under Minneapolis’ program, BCR teams will be called in once police have “calmed things down and there is no threat of physical harm or physical violence.”
But that would have been too late for Jordan, said Gross, who added she was “flabbergasted” Canopy won’t go as co-responders with police to potentially violent scenes.
“I believe most of the time mental health crisis responders should be the primary response,” she said, “but those rare instances where is a weapon or threat involved, there should be a co-response.”
In Jordan’s case, Gross said, crisis team members might have counseled police to de-escalate, calmed Jordan down through the window or even left for awhile since no one else was in danger.
Said Hanson: “If the police ask us to come, we would go to the scene, once it has been secured for safety. … Police have to decide to utilize us. Because we are establishing our relationship and work, we don’t co-respond at this moment,” though she didn’t rule it out in the future.
‘More work to be done’
Rep. Jessica Hanson, DFL-Burnsville (no relation to Candace Hanson), was the main sponsor of Travis’s Law, which says 911 dispatchers “shall” send mental health crisis teams where available. The previous statute said that dispatchers “may” send in such teams.
Hanson said the House bill she introduced was altered when it got to the Senate. While the original language had 911 dispatching both police and mental health teams in the same paragraph, the Senate version — the one signed into law — placed the dispatch of mental health teams in a second paragraph and called it an additional step.
In Hanson’s opinion, that sends the message that mental crisis teams need not be the primary responders.
“It leaves it open to interpretation,” she said, allowing Minneapolis and other jurisdictions to avoid using a co-response model in situations when violence is threatened. She said she wants the primary response eventually to be done with mental health crisis teams.
“Our biggest goal is to end the police-only responses,” she said. “There is a lot more work to be done.”
Ramsey County has had crisis teams of social workers or mental health professionals sent out by 911 dispatchers since 2016, according to Social Services Division Director Sophia Thompson. She said they’re not equipped to handle calls involving violence or a weapons but added that may change.
“I do envision in the near future, a co-response where police and mental health or social workers co-respond and go out together to an active call to de-escalate an incident,” Thompson said.
John Romig, a social worker with the Dakota County crisis response unit, said that requiring dispatchers to send out mental health workers on calls isn’t a big change for his county since they have been working closely with police for years. Some cities in Dakota County have social workers embedded with police.
He said his crisis unit responds along with police when there’s a threat of violence or weapons. Police often call him as they’re driving to a scene, he said.
“Because of a weapon and a threat, we would be working with police to try and de-escalate the situation,” Romig said. “We would be talking with the client or person and talking to the officer as well.”
“There is a safety risk and that has been a factor for decades,” he said. “It is more of being careful and being informed.”