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DULUTH - In a 12-hour shift, 20 percent of calls Duluth police respond to have to do with someone who is mentally ill. According to Chief Gordon Ramsay, it's the biggest issue his cops deal with on a daily basis.
"The bottom line is if someone's not a harm or threat to themselves or others, there's nothing really we can legally do with them," explained Ramsay.
Answering calls to the mentally ill is a situation Duluth police officers find themselves in far too often.
They average 15 to 20 suicides a year, and many more attempts.
It's those with conditions like schizophrenia, deep depression, or suffering from personality disorders who end up seeing police more than social workers.
"We're putting the officers in many cases into calls that really you don't need a police officer to go to,” Ramsay said. “Yet we're the front line and we're the ones that are sent on those calls."
There are only a handful of on-call counselors and crisis response teams throughout the Northland.
It forces police to not only protect and serve the community, but to also protect the mentally ill from themselves.
"It ends up being suicide sometimes,” explained St. Louis County’s Adult Mental Health Supervisor, Linda Curran. “It starts with trespassing, and nuisance calls, or someone is frightened by some of the awkward off behaviors that they're seeing on the streets."
While most situations simply call for de-escalation, police typically end up taking severely mentally ill people to one of two places; the hospital or jail.
In the words of Chief Ramsay, the jails are becoming institutions, and police are the social workers of the streets.
Only 20 out of Duluth’s 150 officers are formally trained on mental health crisis response.
"The fact is that police standards training have not kept up with the amount of mental illness we have," Chief Ramsay said.
With a high demand for specialized training matched with a lack of funding, Duluth police and St. Louis County are doing what they can to help those who are not mentally stable to help themselves.
Duluth police are working to find funding to send five officers to Wisconsin for specialized training.
They'll then come back and train the rest of the department.
As for St. Louis County, they hope to open a crisis stabilization center this summer.