Eagan Police Chief Troubled by Increase in Mental Health Calls
Two high-profile police standoffs involving Eagan officers earlier this year are part of a bigger problem, according to Jim McDonald.
The police standoff on Deerwood Drive in Eagan started when a man with mental health issues threatened a family member with a gun.
It ended when the suspect surrendered peacefully to a force of more than 40 police officers, who shut down an entire neighborhood and set up a mobile command post and roadblocks to keep bystanders safe during the hours-long standoff.
Taken alone, the high-profile standoff is troubling enough. But Eagan Police Chief Jim McDonald sees the incident as a symptom of an even more worrying trend in law enforcement: The increase in both quantity and severity of mental health-related calls.
In 2007, Eagan police responded to a total of 794 mental health calls, including suicide attempts, drug overdoses, check welfare calls and a variety of other situations. By 2011, that number had grown to 1,094 calls—a 38 percent increase.
Break those numbers down, and other patterns emerge. The number of overdose calls police responded to stood at 35 in 2007, but jumped to 75 by 2011, according to statistics released by the Eagan Police Department. Officers were called out on 158 suicide or attempted suicide calls in 2007, but 260 in 2011.
Those mental health situations have a reputation for being wildly unpredictable, even among police officers trained for and accustomed to volatile situations, McDonald said. Often, drugs or alcohol serve as a catalyst for an already-unstable situation, tipping the scales even further toward violence or erratic behavior, McDonald added.
“You never know what you’re going to find, and then when someone tells you something, especially when it has a hint of danger or a threat, you have to believe them," said McDonald.
Take, for example, the six-hour standoff between police and 37-year-old Oudone Xiong that began when Eagan police tried to stop Xiong, a sex offender who told his probation officer he was feeling suicidal thoughts. Xiong led officers on a high-speed chase before threatening to jump from side of the Interstate 35E bridge. The incident involved dozens of officers from seven jurisdictions, snarled rush hour traffic and forced police to shut down a railroad line.
Eagan isn't the only jurisdiction seeing an increase in mental health-related calls. Although the number is much smaller, Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows said his agency responded to 23 such calls in 2008, and 40 in 2011. So far in 2012, Bellow's department has received 41 mental health calls.
The growth in mental health calls in both in Eagan and countywide comes at a time when local crime rates are either plateauing or falling, Bellows and McDonald said.
Both believe that the economic upheaval is the chief culprit in the trend. Substance abuse and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among returning veterans could also play a role.
“I anticipated that, as we saw the economy start to tank, that we would see more theft-related calls, even potential DUIs, things like that," Bellows said. "We haven’t seen that manifest itself, but the number of mental health calls has been going up, and that’s reflective of the stresses on both families and individuals."
Dakota County Crisis Response Unit Supervisor Brian McGlinn says his team hasn't seen the same substantial uptick as local law enforcement agencies.
Instead, the number of mental health visits his department made over the last several years rose at a slow but steady rate—growth that is largely attributable to the county's rising population, McGlinn believes.
The one exception to that overall trend, McGlinn said, is the striking number of suicides in the county during the past few years—especially among local adolescents. Anecdotally, McGlinn's department has responded to six or seven suicides in the past few months. The county he said, is in the midst of a "mini-epidemic."
Most puzzling, for McGlinn, is the lack of any recognizable patterns in the suicide statistics.
"There really doesn’t seem to be any specific profile that we’re seeing with these cases," McGlinn said. "It's kind of all over the map."