Foundation benefits local agencies with training on helping mentally ill

Thirteen years ago, Minneapolis Police Officer Bill Palmer responded to a noise complaint call, having no idea it would change his life.

It was June 12, 2000. A boom box was pointed outside the window, playing static at high volume; it had been that way for several hours.

There Palmer said he encountered Barbara Schneider, who had locked herself in her apartment after stabbing at two officers and withstanding two cans of mace.

“When we breached the door, she was rocking back and forth, hunched over, and she was counting backward from eight,” Palmer said. “I knew we were in trouble when she reached zero. Suddenly, she rushed us with a knife in her hand.

“We had no choice but to shoot her.”

Schneider, who had bipolar disorder, was suffering from a mental health crisis. While they tried, officers were not able to save her from the gunshot wounds.

It had been the sixth police killing of a person with a mental illness in the Twin Cities in two years. Stun guns were not yet used by officers.

“There were 20 years of law enforcement experience between the six of us there that day, and nobody had ever seen anything like this.  We had no training for this,” Palmer said.

At the time, Mark Anderson was working as an aide for Sen. Paul Wellstone, who championed legislation requiring health insurance companies to cover mental health treatment equal to physical illnesses.

Anderson realized there was no mental health crisis training for law enforcement officers.

In response to her death, the Barbara Schneider Foundation was formed.

“The Barbara Schneider Foundation’s mission is to promote positive outcomes for people experiencing a mental health crisis through collaborative intervention and decriminalization,” said Anderson, who has been the executive director of the foundation since 2003.

The foundation offers training to police and other first responders in responding to individuals in a mental health crisis.

Anderson said officers who take part in the five-day crisis intervention technique training learn how to identify signs and symptoms of mental illness. Officers practice everything from a welfare check to responding to a suicidal person.

In Anoka County, many officers and mental health professionals have been trained through the Barbara Schneider Foundation, including three officers from the Anoka Police Department.

“We’re always looking for additional training to work with people who are in crisis situations,” Chief Phil Johanson said. “We want to be better able to try and help them.”

Anoka Police Officer Mary Wellman has been through the crisis intervention, despite already having served as a reserve officer at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center, where she worked daily with those with mental illnesses.

“I found it valuable because it helps officers look at things from a different perspective,” Wellman said.  “I don’t want to rely on force to solve a situation; I want to calm the situation down if I can.”

Columbia Heights Police Chief Scott Nadeau requires all of the department’s officers to attend some level of classes.

The foundation, in cooperation with Metro State University, offers online classes, followed by a one-day workshop, for those police departments that cannot afford to have their officers gone for five days.

“During the training, actors act out a crisis, and those being trained implement de-escalation techniques,” Nadeau said. “A crisis intervention-trained coach helps the group respond to prevent a crisis from escalating. The training really increases the percentages of success.”

Mental health workers are finding this training helpful as well. Duane Schaeffer, chairperson of the Mental Wellness Campaign for Anoka County, went through the training with his employer, Allina Health.

“Even when observing others performing the interventions in a scenario, one is able to learn and gain insight on how to flow with the situation, create safety and maintain proper physical and psychological boundaries,” he said.

Maggie Titus of the Columbia Heights Police Department had had crisis intervention training in 2011.

“Being a police officer, I deal with people in crisis every day,” she said. “I view this training and skill as having another tool on my belt.

“We all carry Tasers and handcuffs, but having the ability to de-escalate a situation without having to use those physical tools works out better in the end for everyone involved.”

Recently Titus was able to use what she has learned to assist a suicidal female.

“She found me a couple days later and thanked me for my help,” Titus said. “To hear that and see her doing well is why I do this job and value crisis intervention training so much,” she added.

Better responses are not just found in the police departments, according to Anderson. Recently, a male barricaded himself in his room at an Anoka County hospital because he didn’t want to take one of his prescribed medications.

“Normally, the staff would have to suit up and go in and get him,” Anderson said. “However, the new training was used. It took an hour, but the man in the room was coaxed to come out because he was assured he would not be hurt.”

According to Palmer, the rate of the use of deadly force within the Minneapolis Police Department dropped dramatically since adopting the national model of crisis intervention training offered by the Barbara Schneider Foundation.

“An incident that lasts seconds will take years to resolve,” Palmer said. “Now, we are training people to identify mental health symptoms, so incidences like the one I experienced are resolved better.”

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