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Viewpoint: SMART Center will help first responders and the mentally ill

By Tim Leslie, Dakota County Sheriff

Most people don't have to look very far to find someone they know who has a mental illness. I'm no different.

When my father returned from the Korean War, my mother said he had changed. He seemed somewhat lost and distant, a little off. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and in his 60s he was civilly committed as mentally ill. He spent time at the Anoka State Hospital and later lived in a facility where he could get the help he needed.

My parents divorced, and we did not see much of my father for many years. He was not a bad person. He was a great conversationalist, he loved to read and he was proud of his military service and his college degree. But he was mentally ill and unable to do those things that most healthy people do: hold a job, take care of certain tasks, be a loving husband and father.

I've thought about my father's challenges recently, especially because of the attention on the interaction between law enforcement and the mentally ill. I wonder how a law enforcement officer decades ago would have reacted to my father if he was in crisis and needed help. Would they recognize he was not dangerous and just ill?

I'll never know the answer to that question, but I do know we have a better handle on how we in law enforcement can help people in those situations today.

Crisis response

Many times law enforcement officers are the ones called to counsel, confront or find a safe place for those who are in crisis or are experiencing a mental breakdown. Law enforcement and other first responders need the right skills and training to understand how best to communicate with those in society who suffer from mental illness.

To their credit, Minnesota legislators in 2017 approved $24 million over four years for crisis intervention training for law enforcement.

Deputies in the Dakota County Sheriff's Office have been training in crisis intervention for a couple years. We use the Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team, which is the most experienced organization that offers this training. However, they don't have a home base, so they conduct their training on location. That training is superb, but they could do more with dedicated space.

We came up with a plan for the Safety and Mental Health Alternative Response Center. Dakota County would build and operate the SMART Center, and Minnesota CIT and other partners would lease space. The location in Inver Grove Heights makes it convenient for first responders across the region.

The Dakota County Board of Commissioners made this their No. 1 legislative priority and already budgeted $6.6 million for SMART Center construction. We're asking for a $6.6 million match from the state to make this a reality. Our Dakota County legislative delegation is supporting it, and we hope the project makes it into the bonding bill this session.

Rosemount example

We've seen firsthand the importance of effective crisis intervention training.

Recently we recognized a Dakota County sheriff's deputy with an award of merit for his handling of a crisis call. The deputy assisted Rosemount police officers who were on a call involving a 15-year-old boy with autism who was suicidal and barricaded in his room. The boy then crawled out onto the roof and threatened officers. The deputy spoke to the boy and convinced him to return to his room, where police made contact with him.

We're fortunate the potentially violent situation was resolved peacefully. The deputy's crisis intervention training made the difference.

The SMART Center would be a place where first responders could get the tools they need to help people suffering from a mental health crisis. This issue isn't going away, and it affects so many of us in one way or another.

After all, we're talking about helping people in crisis, whether they are our neighbors or even our friends or family.