Over the past year, the Duluth Police Department has seen a 31 percent decrease in calls for service among people who have been identified as having regular contact with officers.

Officials on Wednesday attributed that reduction to the establishment of a Mental Health Unit, which consists of two dedicated police officers and two embedded social workers.

"We do not want to police mental health," Mayor Emily Larson said. "We want to support and encourage an increased mental health."

The city hosted a news conference, in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month, to outline the impact of the initiative.

Officials have estimated that about half of all county jail inmates suffer from a mental illness. Police Chief Mike Tusken said the partnership allows for an alternate path, with social workers serving alongside officers to "do everything from street-corner therapy, to diagnose steps to help people stay on task with their medications to helping them stay out of the (criminal justice) system."

"It is daunting to think of the impacts of mental health in our community, because we all know someone who has suffered," Tusken said. "But we have to approach this one person at a time. And we do that by being there to care for people who need a hand up. It's effective, it's changing lives and it's really been one of the most meaningful projects that I've been involved in in my entire career."

While the unit was formalized last year, Tusken noted that the efforts to identify people and connect with them with services dates as far back as 2009, when officer Dave Drozdowski began working with organizations including CHUM and the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment.

Over that decade, police said, the partners have identified more than 100 people who have been the subject of repeated police contacts stemming from mental illness, substance use disorders and/or homelessness.

"People can fall into traps of recidivism and criminal activity and then kind of be policed towards mental health," said Larson, who spent 12 years as a social worker at the CHUM drop-in center. "There's a better way to do things, and we know that."

The Mental Health Unit, which officially began as a pilot project in 2014, has been bolstered by St. Louis County, which employs the social workers and allows them to serve inside the police department.

County Board Chair Patrick Boyle said the Duluth program is now being replicated across the state and beyond.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "As a society, I think we can do better. And as a community, I think we are leaders."