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Minnesota police opt not to respond to suicide calls out of concerns for liability

Lawmakers last year approved a change to Minnesota's policies outlining when police can use deadly force. And in the months since it took effect, law enforcement agencies have split on how it should be applied in situations where a person is in mental health crisis.

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If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text MN to 741741. In an emergency situation call 911.

ST. PAUL — Minnesota police departments in some parts of the state have opted against sending officers to respond to suicide calls out of concerns for the legal ramifications that could await them.

A change to the state's use-of-force laws puts officers in a bind, police groups told Forum News Service, because it makes unclear their liability if they reach for their gun to defend themselves or others in a "suicide by cop" situation.

And rather than risk breaking the law, some departments have declined to send officers for calls about people in a mental health crisis.

“We have had now police and sheriffs refuse to respond to suicide calls. And it's hugely problematic,” National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden said. “We just really believe that yes, 'suicide by cop' is a real thing but it is a very small percentage. And we do need officers at times responding to suicide calls."

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Sue Abderholden
Sue Abderholden

"Suicide by cop" describes an incident in which a suicidal person intentionally engages in criminal behavior to provoke officers to shoot them.

The Minnesota Legislature in 2020 passed a slate of police accountability measures months after George Floyd was murdered while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The measure's supporters said that in the wake of Floyd's murder, the state needed to do more to prevent police violence and to hold bad officers to account.

As part of that package, lawmakers limited the conditions in which law enforcement officers can deploy deadly force.

The law says officers can use lethal force only when an officer or a bystander is at risk of serious injury or death. And the officer needs to be able to prove based on what they knew at the time that the force was justified.

That language has spurred confusion about when officers could use deadly force against a person who is attempting to hurt him or herself. And while police and mental health groups are working to provide best practices for approaching the situations, departments have put forth different guidance to officers in the meantime.

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Concerned Minnesotans brought the issue to NAMI's attention, Abderholden said, but it wasn't clear how many mental health crisis calls had gone unanswered due to different interpretations of the deadly force policy. Abderholden said the statute has also prompted some officers to avoid mental health transport calls out of concerns for officer liability in communities around the state.

House Public Safety Committee Chairman Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, wrote the 2020 police accountability package and worked to get it passed through the divided Legislature. He said stakeholder groups involved in crafting the legislation failed to raise concerns about potential issues at the time.

"The language itself was pretty carefully crafted with law enforcement at the table. There's no way we would've passed that bill without law enforcement signing off," Mariani said. " If you’ve got an individual that’s holding a gun, it doesn’t take much for that gun to be turned on somebody else. We crafted the law in such a way that if that’s the situation, peace officers continue to hold the ability to use deadly force."

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Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul

Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts said individual police departments had to weigh the risk to the person in crisis against the potential risk to the officer responding. They also had to consider their liability in meeting their duty of care to the community.

“That statute sets up this kind of condition where what is the law enforcement agency supposed to do in that scenario?" Potts said. "The family members are going to want some kind of a police response but some police chiefs are trying to be careful, not put their officers in a position where they could violate the statute by just their mere presence and how that sometimes can escalate situations."

“You end up with an unfortunate situation where we have called it suicide by cop in the past," he said. "But now it presents a scenario where the officers are concerned about would that lead to a violation of the statute? And then what happens to them personally?

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Bill Hutton, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, said he'd also heard concerns from sheriffs departments around the state regarding how the new law could impact officers' liability. But he said none had stopped responding to suicide calls because of the new provision.

“Law enforcement officers are responding to these calls, they’re showing up to help and they’re bringing in as many professionals as they can to resolve the situation," he said.

Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton square

A push to write best practices for responding to crisis calls

Law enforcement groups, mental health advocates and the Minnesota Attorney Generals Office since June have been meeting to clarify the policy and to write recommendations for how officers should approach it. Leaders involved in those talks said they hoped to have guidance finalized by summer's end.

But in the interim, some stakeholders said police should be responding to the crisis calls as they typically would.

Suicide rates in the state dropped in 2020 compared to a year prior, but that came after the state recorded 830 suicides in 2019, the most on record in one year.

"Luckily, this last year went down a little bit, but it was the highest it ever had been the year before. And we just don't want to see that happening," Abderholden, with NAMI Minnesota, said. "W e just we just really feel like there is a role for the police to play in ending suicide.

Hutton, with the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, agreed that law enforcement should play a role in responding to crisis calls but he said they shouldn't be the only ones responding to those in crisis.

“This cannot just land on law enforcement’s lap," Hutton said. "It has to be a systemwide approach so it has to be providers as well, it has to be family and if we say this is a law enforcement problem only we’re not going to be successful."

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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