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Austin police chief, NAMI talk law enforcement crisis and mental health training requirements

Law enforcement agencies in Minnesota are required to provide at least a total of 16 hours within an officer's three-year licensing cycle of in-service training in crisis intervention and mental illness crises; conflict management and mediation; and recognizing and valuing community diversity and cultural differences to include implicit bias training.

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AUSTIN — In the aftermath of a police shooting that killed a 38-year-old Austin man, the head of the Austin Police Department and leaders of local chapters of a national advocacy group on mental illness reflect on the training law enforcement receive for crisis situations.

On Thursday, Dec. 23, Kokou Christopher Fiafonou died as a result of multiple gunshot wounds. His death has been ruled a homicide by the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office.

Fiafonou’s death came after a more than 24-hour stand-off with law enforcement who have said that he had a knife and threatened to hurt others. Fiafonou reportedly confronted officers in the parking lot of a Kwik Trip gas station when a two-year veteran of the police department fired his weapon.

Social media posts have said that Fiafonou had struggled with his mental health.

The officer, Zachary Gast, has been placed on standard administrative leave. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is investigating the incident.

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Required training

Law enforcement agencies in Minnesota are required to provide at least a total of 16 hours within an officer's three-year licensing cycle of in-service training in crisis intervention and mental illness crises; conflict management and mediation; and recognizing and valuing community diversity and cultural differences to include implicit bias training.

Beginning July 1, 2021, the mandate required that a minimum of six of the 16 hours were dedicated to crisis intervention and mental illness crisis training.

“We thought it was really important that there would be certain things that every officer would learn as part of their continuing education and we need to make sure they are being taught by the people who have the right credentials,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of The National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota. “We certainly would have preferred more hours but frankly, everything is a compromise at the Legislature, and we felt that this was still a really good move forward.”

State statute requires the training to cover topics like crisis de-escalation, co-occurring mental illnesses and substance use disorders, techniques for relating to individuals with mental illnesses and the individuals' families and mental illnesses and disorders and the symptoms. The first group of officers who would be required to undergo this new training requirement would be those with a license renewal date of June 30, 2022.

Size makes a difference

Austin Police Chief McKichan said his department follows the Minnesota POST requirements. He said there are many Austin officers who exceed the minimum requirement and those who took the additional requirements even though they did not fall under the new mandate, yet.

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“We have brought some professionals in to go over some of that when it comes to crisis intervention and mental illness. Like most places, we’ve been impacted by COVID and the ability to bring people in and bring groups together for group in-person classes,” McKichan said, adding that the department has moved some of its training to an online, POST approved platform.

Larger departments, like the Rochester Police Department and the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office, provide a 40-hour in-house Crisis Intervention Training program, which includes both classroom sessions on topics such as suicide prevention, elder issues, cognitive disabilities and veterans issues, as well as interactive role-play scenarios using actors specially trained in portraying crisis situations.

The programs can be costly, even when run in-house, as departments need to pay the hourly wages of those officers going through the training as well as those called in to cover for officers pulled off their normal shifts.

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Olmsted County has a population of more than 140,000 people while Mower County has approximately 40,000 residents, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We generally don’t always have the size to have some of the more unique programs that those of a bigger city would have,” McKichan said.

But being smaller can have its advantages too.

McKichan considers the physical proximity of the law enforcement center that houses both city police and the Mower County Sheriff's Office as well as the Mower County Health and Human Services a benefit.

“Our investigators do have a very close relationship with our health and human services,” McKichan said.

Because of the relatively small size of the department, officers who are a part of the Special Incident Response Team also have other duties within the department. Working out in the field in roles such as a patrol officer or a detective also gives the individual an immediate chance to turn their training into experience, McKichan said.

'Changing an instinct is going to take work'

Calls for service for the Austin police approach 20,000 a year and can include things as simple as a noise complaint or a request to unlock a vehicle to more serious issues.

The variation in commitment to crisis de-escalation and education about mental illness and people experiencing mental illness doesn’t go unnoticed.

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“It just seems that across the country, even across Minnesota, there is just a completely different commitment to training response to people experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Courtney Lawson, the interim executive director of NAMI Southeast Minnesota.

Lawson said she appreciates the mandated training, but would like to see a more regular commitment and more regular hours of training that would include role-playing scenarios.

“I really see a need to go above and beyond those requirements. It's not a lot of hours,” Lawson said of the POST requirements. “It almost needs to become an instinct that they are responding in a way that de-escalates instead of escalates. Changing an instinct is just going to take work.”

Lawson said responding to a high stress situation with weapons out and going into a situation with the intention or the possibility of using force is concerning to her as a citizen.

“From a mental health perspective,” Lawson said, “it's a highly charged situation and the more calming that the responder can be, that is the energy that the person will pick up on.”

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