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How Duluth grassroots effort led charge to bolster crisis response

Stakeholders are still ironing out the details on how the expanded community crisis response will work. They plan to make announcements about the service in early 2022.

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The volunteer organizers behind an expanding crisis response team in Duluth, pictured Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, include Blair Powless, from left, with the Duluth Community Safety Initiative; Treasure Jenkins, of the NAACP criminal justice committee, DCSI and Twin Ports Democratic Socialists of America Racial Justice Working Group; Angel Dobrow, with the DCSI and Twin Ports DSA; Jamey Sharp, co-chair of the criminal justice committee of the Duluth NAACP; and Classie Dudley, president of the Duluth branch of the NAACP. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN
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In the months following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, grassroots organizers from various groups in Duluth started coalescing with a shared vision: address systemic inequity and demand greater police accountability.

Now, those same organizers have been volunteering their time to hold regular meetings since early summer with public officials and community partners to work toward expanding crisis response services that are independent from the police for those facing nonviolent crises, such as mental health or substance use disorder issues.

“This is not an anti-police project. This is not an anti-gun project. This is not an anti-law-and-order project,” Jamey Sharp, co-chair of the criminal justice committee of the Duluth NAACP, said. “It’s a pro-people project. It’s a pro-mental-health project. It’s a pro-compassion project.”

As a result of their initiative, crisis services in the area are expected to grow from an annual budget of roughly $400,000 a year to $1.4 million next year. Later in December, the Duluth City Council is expected to pass the city’s 2022 budget that was amended to include $600,000 a year to support a community crisis response team operating out of the Human Development Center.


As an emergency medical technician, Sharp said he sees law enforcement personnel stepping up frequently and going beyond their job descriptions to help people in crises.

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On top of that, the Duluth Police Department has a mental health unit consisting of two embedded social workers and a nurse who can respond to calls for help without officers.

But the NAACP and its partnering organizations, Twin Ports Democratic Socialists of America Racial Justice Working Group and the recently formed Duluth Community Safety Initiative, wanted to see more resources funneled to addressing the root cause of peoples’ crises. They set their sights on the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) model based in Eugene, Oregon, and founded in 1989.

The goal, Sharp said, is to grow a community crisis response team that can change and adapt to community needs, while helping to build back a better safety net for people in the decades since deinstitutionalization — the process of moving people with severe mental illness out of publicly funded psychiatric hospitals — began in the 1950s.

Virtually nothing was put in place to replace those facilities that housed people experiencing homelessness, mental illness and substance use disorders. Instead, police have been left to deal with an ever-growing number of situations involving mental-health-related issues, often leading to the criminalization of mental illness and poverty.

“The vision is that there will be an option for dealing with crises that arise other than the police department,” Blair Powless, of the Duluth Community Safety Initiative, said. “The police department certainly needs to respond to some situations, but they don't need to respond to all. It’s our belief that police response can sometimes escalate situations and create violence where there wouldn’t have been violence necessarily.”

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Blair Powless with the Duluth Community Safety Initiative talks Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at Portland Square in Duluth about an expanding and non-punitive community crisis response team in the city that will more than double existing resources. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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For months, Powless, Sharp and Angel Dobrow, originally with the Twin Ports DSA Racial Justice Working Group and now also with the Duluth Community Safety Initiative, have been emailing every day and meeting weekly outside of twice-monthly meetings with public officials.

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“When we first started meeting as this larger group with the city, council, county, various other organizations, it became pretty apparent that the specific vision and interest of the community were getting kind of lost in the bureaucracy,” said Dobrow, adding that it brought the organizers closer.
“We became extremely united in what would be in the best interest, the best format for the community,” she said.

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Angel Dobrow with the Duluth Community Safety Initiative and the Twin Ports Democratic Socialists of America Racial Justice Working Group speaks about an expanding community crisis response team on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at Portland Square in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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Dobrow and Treasure Jenkins, who’s involved in all three of the mentioned organizations, went out to the community to inform them of their ideas and receive feedback.

“We realized it’s important for people to change their thinking,” Jenkins said. “Every time there’s a problem, the way it stands now, you call the police. It’s important for people to shift their perspective about what needs to happen in a crisis. It's also important that people who are in a crisis are not stigmatized.”

Many of the details about how the expanded community crisis response will operate have yet to be ironed out, including how exactly the city’s $600,000 will be allocated in 2022, how dispatch would work — what number people would call, what calls would be diverted to the team and how that would be done — as well as the oversight residents will have over the program.

Formal announcements on how the public can use the expanded service are expected to take place early next year.

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Anything the police would respond to that’s not violent is being considered as a possible cause for the non-punitive response. Similar to the CAHOOTS model, calls the team might respond to could include welfare checks, suicide threats, substance abuse, mental-health-related crises, neighbor disputes or someone who’s homeless trespassing.

“This really is getting at the root of the problem because we're seeing that there are not systems in place to support these individuals,” Sharp said. “What we hope is that CCR (community crisis response) is just the first thing because the crisis is just the moment when everything goes wrong.”

According to White Bird Clinic in Eugene, where CAHOOTS operates, the program has an annual budget of about $2 million and in 2019 the mobile responded to roughly 24,000 calls, of which 150 required police backup.

“The team wouldn’t be running someone’s name, seeing if they have warrants,” Powell said. “There’d be no threat of arrest or jail. This would be a voluntary thing.”

Classie Dudley, president of the Duluth branch of the NAACP, cited studies that show that in order to eliminate crime, resources need to be given to communities experiencing the most poverty.

“When the cops are involved, a lot of time in order for them to take action, especially dealing with mental crises, is to make an arrest on that person,” Dudley said. “Now that person has a criminal background. So when that person does get out, they have a record or they have a charge and it just escalates from there.”

Jamey Sharp, left, co-chair of the criminal justice committee of the Duluth NAACP, and Classie Dudley, president of the Duluth branch of the NAACP, talk about the expansion of a non-punitive community crisis response team in Duluth on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at Portland Square in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune free

Integrated collaboration

Representatives from the city of Duluth, including the police and fire departments, Duluth City Council, St. Louis County, the Human Development Center as well as other community partners have all had a seat at the table.

The Human Development Center, the Northland’s only certified community behavioral health center, officially took over as Duluth and the surrounding area’s crisis responder Dec. 7 through a contract the center now holds with St. Louis County and Arrowhead Behavioral Health Initiative that was previously held by Thrive Behavioral Network.

The contract provides $640,000 in state dollars to the center for crisis response. The center is also investing money and resources into the program. The already-secured funding allowed the center to launch the community crisis response Dec. 7, prior to receiving the city's planned contribution next year, Human Development Center Chief Executive Benjamin Hatfield said.

As of now, the service can be reached by calling 844-772-4724.

“We have the most comprehensive set of service delivery possible in this area. I think it'll be a great bridge for all community members in need to be able to access them,” Hatfield said. “In Duluth, just in general, crisis response hasn’t been as expansive as we’re going to make it."

Katie Onofreychuk, chief clinical officer at the Human Development Center, said the program will not only take some of the load off law enforcement and other first responders, but overwhelmed emergency rooms, too. People in a mental health crisis often go to the emergency room, not knowing where else to go.

What excites Onofreychuk most about the future of crisis response in Duluth is that a community advisory council, consisting of roughly 10 diverse citizens, will form to oversee the program.

“The community is really going to be informing our best practices and ensuring that we're meeting the needs of the community,” Onofreychuk said. “I don't know that in the past crisis services have worked that way, where the community has had that voice there.”

The center recently posted a job position for a community coordinator position. It's planned for a team of nine people, including six mobile crisis providers, but Hatfield foresees further expansion and a continual need for investments from the city, state and county to keep the program growing to demand.

Duluth Police Department Chief Mike Tusken said the city's proposed investment in crisis response will more than double the resources currently available. He's optimistic it will lead to less calls for service for his officers. The vast majority of calls Duluth officers and others around the country respond to are calls that a social worker could do.

Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune free

"The wild card is that you don't know which one of those they can't do," he said.

When the department's embedded social workers in the police department are responding to a crisis, officers will often join in the beginning to assess the situation and make sure its safe.

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Tusken estimates the department responds to 10 times more mental health-related crises than it did when he started in the early 1990s.
Reasons for that, he said, include treatment services that haven't kept up with the growing need, science that shows long-term drug use leads to psychosis and the deinstitutionalization of mental illness without putting anything in its place.

"The largest repository for people who are ill is oftentimes our jail and prison systems," he said. "If we're not investing in peoples' well-being the alternative is to continue to do what we do or have done for decades. That doesn't work."

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Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken. Clint Austin / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune

In order to create a whole net of support to stop the criminalization of mental illness and substance use disorders, the federal and state governments need to invest heavily in the issue. For example, Tusken said, there's still a need for more treatment beds, supportive housing and other services to keep people on the right path after the crisis response.

Ongoing support

St. Louis County Commissioner Ashley Grimm, who's been representing the county in the crisis response meetings, said Duluth is modeling that local solutions can happen when all the stakeholders come together.

“This isn't a matter of taking away funds for the police department," Grimm said. "It's not an attack on the police department. It's really the opposite. We're working with the police department and with community groups and the county and city to build a solution together. That's a win-win for everyone.”

One of the county's largest roles in supporting the program is through dispatch and creating a system that works for people during a time of national, state and local change, with the launch of a new three-digit (988) national suicide hotline in July. Grimm said it will be on the county to fund any changes, which could be "substantial," to how dispatch operates.

"I will be strongly advocating for that," she said.

Duluth City Councilor Gary Anderson, who's also been attending the meetings, said each year, the city will have the opportunity to determine if its financial contribution to the program needs to be increased. He thanked organizers for the "tremendous" support they brought to the initiative.

“This wouldn't have happened if it were just the city doing this. It wouldn't have happened this quickly and this comprehensively," Anderson said. "I always want to see us responding to the community and creating good policy in response to the community. This is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of that."

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