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Spotlight on mental health: Addressing the issue

Woodbury Police Commander Kris Mienert

Editor's note: This story is part of a RiverTown Multimedia spotlight on mental health. Find the series here.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton in 2016 signed a bill allotting an additional $12 million over two years to the state's Peace Officer Standards and Training Board to amp up police training for tense situations.

With the funding came additional requirements.

Minnesota law enforcement must complete 16 hours of additional training each three-year licensing cycle that focuses on challenging implicit bias, conflict mediation and mental health crisis intervention.

READ MORE: Mental health glossary 

The requirements take effect after POST develops its learning objectives for Minnesota peace officers' training.

Commander Kris Mienert with the Woodbury Police said the new mandates are unlikely to prompt drastic changes to that department's regular training.

"We have been very proactive in this endeavor and the new mandates really don't change anything for us, because we were doing that anyway," she said. "We felt a strong need to do something sooner rather than later before any of these mandates came out."

Woodbury officers began participating in a one-time, 40-hour training program provided by Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust.

The department also opts for additional training regarding relevant issues in the community. Last year, tactical officers received additional training on crowd control in response to protests throughout the Twin Cities metro.

Meinert said the department's momentum for all officers to participate in crisis training picked up in the last three years.

As a department that provides both police and paramedic services, Meinert said Woodbury Public Safety identified the need for mental health training early on.

"Our police officers were coming across more individuals on the paramedic side with mental health needs, so we felt the need to get ahead of that," she said. " We also understand the increase in mental illness that we've seen nationwide. We saw the trend coming, so we wanted to be ahead of that."

The number of emotional disturbance and suicidal calls across for service across Washington County jumped from 380 in 2014 to 468 in 2016.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office received 240 of those types of calls last year, a number that threatens to exceed previous years.

Sheriff deputies and correctional officers with the county complete the same 40-hour training as Woodbury police.

Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry described the training as "hands-on," with actors trained to simulate mental health crises scenarios.

Dan Starry"It's in-your-face and it really gets the deputies and correctional officers out of their comfort level," Starry said. " I think they have to do that in order to learn and in order to cope with what's in front of them."

The responsibilities of the sheriff's office are compounded by the operation of the county jail. The average stay in the Washington County Jail lasts about eight days, during which time inmates are evaluated by nurses and psychologists. Medications to treat mental illness account for nearly 70 percent of the $118,000 the county spent on inmate prescriptions last year.

Starry said the goal is for inmates to "leave in a better condition than when they came in."

The recognition of mental illness, Starry said, is one of the most important skills law enforcement gains from specialized training.

"I think they have to have a device that they can rely on; something that's tangible, that works and that they can fall back on to have that positive outcome — for them and also for the subject they're dealing with," he said. "We certainly would rather have us talk a person out of something."

Meinert said the training teaches officers to slow down and take their time with situations in which mental illness could be a factor.

"A lot of times officers might be in the mindset of handling a call as quickly as they can so they can get to the next call," she said. "But we really wanted to emphasize that what is going to work is going to have the patience and time on your side to deal with these types of individuals in crisis."

— Maureen McMullen, John R. Russett and Kit Murray contributed to this report