Police can see mental-health data to foil fatal encounters

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December 6, 2004 // UPDATED 4:50 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Robyn Repya
Robyn Repya

New law allows law enforcement to see medical data without the person's consent in crisis situations. Will it save lives and preserve privacy?

Spurred by fatal encounters between police and persons with mental illness in the last few years, a new law gives law enforcement officers access to mental health data during a crisis situation.

Minneapolis Police are changing their procedures to get information that could help reduce fatal encounters.

The law, which went into effect Aug. 1, allows police to get mental-health data from providers rather than relying on the consent of the mentally ill person -- who in a crisis is unlikely to give it.

The law states that police must ensure that an emergency exists and that the information is needed to guard the safety of the patient or others.

Mark Anderson is the executive director of the Barbara Schneider Foundation. In June 2000, police fatally shot Schneider, who had a mental illness, in her Uptown apartment building during a crisis situation.

Anderson said the legislation might help in cases like Schneider's. He said if police had more information about her condition -- for example, that she wasn't taking her medication -- they might have been better prepared to deal with the situation.

Police data access

Police Sgt. Ron Bellendier, who works in Downtown's 1st Precinct with Crisis Intervention Training, is eager to have officers use the new law, but hasn't been able to yet. "I have requested it [that the training start] several times from the administration and have not received any reply as to when or if I'll be able to do" the training, he said.

Lt. Marie Przynski of the department's professional Development unit said in-service mental health training that incorporates the new law would begin in January. She said the Department is working with groups such as the Schneider Foundation to enhance the training.

Inspector Don Harris, oversees department training units and said the law requires changing police procedure as well as training.

Arranging how officers could access mental health data is the responsibility of Lt. Mike Sauro, who heads the department's Operations Development unit. Sauro said he's researching the new law and preparing an announcement to officers that accessing the data is an option.

Sauro is not convinced the data will be disclosed because the law says that providers "may" disclose the information but does not require them to.

He said the county -- one of the area's biggest providers of mental health services -- has been less than cooperative in the past.

Legislative evolution

The legislation originated in the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, helped by Minneapolis Police and some in the mental health community.

State Rep. Paul Kohls (R-Victoria), says the law's intent "is to allow police officers to contact mental health providers in crisis situations to deal with the crisis before [a fatal incident occurs] and de-escalate it in a nonviolent way."

Kohls and the Schneider Foundation's Anderson acknowledge that many police encounters happen too fast to use the new law, but it should help in lengthier standoffs.

Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar said her office worked for years to better help law enforcement deal with the mentally ill. She said it took awhile to design legislation that addressed everyone's concerns. The Minneapolis Police Department staff came up with the concept, and Hennepin County refined the language.

The bill was eventually rolled into a data privacy bill that, despite an otherwise gridlocked Legislature, passed last session and was signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Despite the enthusiasm of lawmakers, however, not everyone is convinced privacy and civil rights will be protected.

Privacy and civil rights

Anderson said some in the mental health community were concerned about allowing police access to sensitive personal information. It's a valid concern, he said, "because there's an enormous stigma attached to mental illness."

Beyond stigma, Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said the legislation would hurt privacy while not addressing the underlying problem.

The legislation could open the doors to everyone's record, allowing the police to make something public information, which could then be used against the individual, Samuelson said.

Kohls said those concerns are recognized in the bill's safeguards (see sidebar) that limit data collection only for crisis intervention. For example, he said, "It's not our intention to have data to later be used in criminal proceedings."

Klobuchar said such protections came from work with the mental health community. In addition to the crisis-situation limitation, only law enforcement officers would have access to the information.

Samuelson also said that because the most publicized police-related fatalities occurred in Minneapolis, the legislation could weaken privacy statewide for what might be only one city's problem.

Senate author Don Betzold (DFL-Fridley) disagrees, noting the slaying of a police officer by a person with mental illness in Moose Lake last year.

"I don't think it's just confined to Minneapolis; it can happen in other places," he said. "Mental illness is not just located in Minneapolis."

Of two minds

The Schneider Foundation's Anderson maintains that the legislation is an important step in improving the connection between law enforcement and the mental health community.

"When Barbara died in the encounter [with police], she was being seen by a mental health provider, but she wasn't taking her medication. Building residents called her crazy, but no one was specific when they recounted her problems to police," Anderson said.

He believes if Minneapolis Police had known specifics of Schneider's condition, they could have approached it differently.

Bellendier, said the idea is that municipalities would set up a system so police could call the appropriate professional and access mental health data during a crisis, if time allowed. He said many crisis situations last at least three to four hours, enough time to get some information.

It would be impossible to have provider information for every potential suspect, he said, but police could maintain a database of people they've dealt with in the past.

However, John Trepp, executive director of Tasks Unlimited, which helps people with mental illness find housing and employment, said police could misinterpret the data, and be more tempted to work on their own rather than bringing in mental health professionals. "If there's time to make a call [for data] -- there's probably time for a mental health professional to drive over" and personally assist the officers, he said.

Bellendier disagrees; he believes officers will work as much if not more with mental health professionals, because the law only encourages contact between the two groups. "Take suicidal jumpers and talking them down," he said. "It's helpful to know if they have a case worker and could even bring them down to the scene."