by Margie O’Loughlin
While communities everywhere are calling for a changed model of policing, a small unit within the St. Paul Police Department has been taking a different approach for almost three years. In March of 2018, the St. Paul Police Department piloted a new unit dedicated to mental health crisis calls. The mental health unit was made up of three officers, a supervisor and two licensed clinical social workers.
One year later, the unit was renamed COAST (Community Outreach & Stabilization Unit). Its range of services expanded to include chemical health and homelessness, as well as mental health. The COAST unit has now grown to six officers, a supervisor, three licensed clinical social workers, and one licensed alcohol and drug counselor.
St. Paul, the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and Bloomington Police Department are among the Minnesota law enforcement agencies with such units.
The St. Paul Police Department in January rolled out a former Metro Mobility bus to enhance its COAST work. The office-on-wheels gives social workers and police a mobile space for chemical dependency, housing and mental health assessments in St. Paul.
The community outreach vehicle is hailed as providing faster service and on-the-spot help to people in need. The professional assessments are usually required before someone can access needed mental health or treatment resources, housing service and other programs. The vehicle contains work areas and computers, to access resources quickly. That’s an alternative to telling people to make appointments for another time.
Mental health is an important aspect of the COAST Unit’s work. As COVID-19 and social unrest have unraveled communities in the last year, the volume of mental health calls to St. Paul 911 has grown.
Increased COAST staffing allows the unit to respond to calls involving people in crisis, make referrals to community mental health partners, and conduct follow-up visits to ensure continuity.
Sargent Jamie Sipes, a 26 year veteran of law enforcement, supervises the COAST Unit. “Mental health calls are on the rise,” he said. “By pairing social workers with police officers, we feel we are better able to respond to community mental health needs. Our social workers bring their mental health expertise out into the community where it’s needed.”
COAST unit members sometimes travel in minivans marked only with a small police insignia. The law enforcement officers wear dark navy shirts and khakis instead of traditional uniforms. Social workers ride along as equal partners. These efforts are a visual way of saying, “We’re here on a police call, but our team is going to do things differently.”
Amber Ruth was the first licensed clinical social worker to join the COAST unit. “I appreciate being on the scene with the officers. As social workers, we’re able to assess people in crisis in their situation. We can directly refer them to resources — which keeps them from getting lost in the shuffle,” she said.
To date, the COAST social worker positions have been funded by Regions Hospital, People Incorporated (a community provider of integrated behavioral and mental health services in Minnesota), and other granting organizations.
The goal of COAST is to connect people in crisis with the care they need, helping to reduce mental health crisis-related arrests and repeat calls for service. “All of our SPPD officers receive 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. With the increase of mental health crisis calls, responders need to know how to handle these difficult situations,” said Sipes.
According to the Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team website, there is currently little to no CIT training offered at police academies for dealing with mental illness. It’s up to individual police departments to undertake that work. In St. Paul, it has become mandatory.
The CIT model promotes the use of verbal de-escalation skills before using force when confronting a mental health crisis. CIT training has been proven to dramatically decrease the risk of injuries or death to both officers and those suffering from mental illness, while also reducing the number of repeat 911 calls.
Help is available
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five people will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime. COAST has several partner organizations through Ramsey County, veterans’ services,.
A statewide resources for people with mental health needs is https://mentalhealthmn.org/support/community-resources/statewide-mental-health-resources/
People in need may also call 1-888-NAMI-Helps / 1-888-626-4435
A version of this article appeared recently in the Monitor, a newspaper serving the St. Paul neighborhoods of Hamline-Midway, Como and Frogtown.