By Alisa Roth
It was a rainy weekday morning when somebody called police to report a woman had been camped out in her car in the parking lot on Harriet Island. She’d been throwing cigarette butts and litter on the ground and the car was parked across a couple of spots. The caller wanted her gone.
As 911 calls go, this was relatively dull: no high-speed chase, no pulled gun. It wasn’t even dark out.
She could have gotten citations for the cigarettes and the litter, the lousy parking, or for spending the night in the park.
But when St. Paul police officers showed up in two police cars, they realized they knew her: one of them had gone to her house a few times for mental health calls, and she’d always been too paranoid to let them into the house. So rather than give her a ticket, they called in the St. Paul police mental health unit.
Now, even as a mental health crisis call, this isn’t the stuff of high drama. In some ways, though, that makes it harder for officers to know how to respond. All of the officers in the St. Paul Police Department are trained in dealing with a mental health crisis, so if the woman were threatening to hurt herself or was psychotic and needed to go to the hospital, the officers would have known what to do. But this time, she wasn’t a harm to herself or to others, so police couldn’t take her to the hospital if she didn’t want to go. And even if she wanted to go, it wasn’t clear that that was what she needed.