Police Chief Medaria Arradondo of the Minneapolis Police Department will tell you that culture is like an iceberg: It hides more than it reveals. This is something that he, Deputy County Administrator Jennifer DeCubellis of Hennepin County, Minnesota, and other members of city and county leadership learned as they worked to reinvent their community’s approach to criminal justice.
According to Arradondo, the old unofficial motto of the Minneapolis Police Department was “a full jail is a happy jail.” Though it had intuitive appeal, it was ill-suited to addressing the larger underlying issues like addiction and mental illness. Once they made this shift in perspective, DeCubellis said that it was clear that the problem the “full jail” philosophy was supposed to address was much larger than anything the police department could handle alone. “What we really had to do was build an ecosystem,” said DeCubellis.
The first step was to build a governance structure that brought police chiefs, judges, public defenders, the attorney’s office, and the county’s other public safety partners all to the same table to discuss and understand where their services intersected. Soon after, they realized that health and human services needed to be a part of the conversation, and a behavioral health steering committee was soon formed. “We really took a snapshot at every single intercept and said, ‘How do we act differently?’” said DeCubellis. “‘And how do we intervene differently?’”
One solution that emerged from this discussion was the Co-Responder Model, which pairs officers up with social workers to respond to mental health crises. These social workers are tasked with providing assessments and deescalating situations that otherwise might become violent or end in self-harm. Following a call, social workers also often follow up the next day and check in periodically for the next 90 days, hopefully reducing the probability of a similar call in the near future. Their approach is reflected even in their dress: Rather than police-like uniforms, they wear polos and khakis to communicate that they are there just to talk, and not to make arrests.
Minneapolis first piloted the program in two of its five precincts, and after its first year, all 13 city council members asked to expand it. Arradondo said, "When police departments across the country are being scrutinized for adding additional sworn personnel, we didn't get any pushback on this at all." The response from the community has been equally positive: "We now have community members who are calling 911 dispatch center, saying, 'Can you please send the [co-responder] team?'" he said.
The ultimate goal is to match up problems with the appropriate solutions. DeCubellis frames it as an effort to “un-bottleneck” a system that predominantly directs the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill towards jail, which soon becomes just another stop along a dismal (and expensive) cycle of recidivism. The Co-Responder Model exists to prevent incarceration in the first place, but for those who end up in jail, Hennepin County has put together an Integrated Access Team—a partnership between the sheriff’s office, human services, and the public health department—to work with inmates suffering from mental illness and addiction to prevent future run-ins with the law.
This program, along with the Co-Responder Model and others, produce two important benefits: data and relationships. The more that city and county services intervene and keep tabs on people, the better they can identify those that require the most attention and care. In doing so, they also build trusting relationships that keep information flowing and prevent future interactions from ending in arrest or a trip to emergency care. The end result is better for everyone: People who might otherwise be arrested are given the chance to recover, and the county ends up saving a lot of money. “We often hear people go, ‘I can’t afford to do something different,” DeCubellis said. “I would argue we can’t afford not to do something different.”
Of course, in the end, it’s about more than money: By adopting a perspective that puts results ahead of punishment, police departments and health and human services in Hennepin County have learned how to better serve their communities, and they have adopted governance structures and evaluative methods that allow for further improvement. At the 2019 Public Safety Summit, Arradondo challenged other police chiefs to commit to work towards lasting cultural change. “They say that it takes nine generations to change culture,” he said. “I don’t know where each of you are at in your generations, but what I do know is that if we are even at generation number one, we have to stay doggedly determined and focused. The men and women within our organizations need that.”
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