Scott Johnson

Jane needs help. That’s not her real name. Jane lives alone and is well known to Grand Rapids Police Officers. You see, Jane struggles with alcohol addiction and depression. Officers have been called to check on her numerous times. The reports are that she is suicidal. Sometimes her condition is such that Minnesota law allows officers to bring her to the hospital emergency room. She is then turned over to the emergency room physician for an evaluation. The physician may or may not choose to admit her to a hospital. That is the doctor’s decision.

First Call for Help, a private non-profit, provides specially trained people to work with the physician in making emergency mental health and chemical dependency evaluations. They are the Crisis Response Team (CRT), a concept that was started in Minnesota in the late 1980s.   

There are few in-patient beds available in Minnesota for treating mental health issues or addiction. The federal and state governments do not allocate enough funding for the necessary number of beds. There are many needs at the national and state level and limited monetary resources. Legislators determine what takes priority. It can’t be easy as there isn’t enough money to do everything that we should be doing.

On Saturday night, Grand Rapids Police Officers were again called to Jane’s home. She had made threats to commit suicide. Others had tried to check on her but she wasn’t answering her telephone or the door. Officers were able to gain entry and found her passed out. There were two empty liquor bottles. She had been cutting herself. Officers removed knives from her home and transported her to the emergency room, turning her over to the physician and CRT. That is all that Minnesota law allows officers to do. At that point, it is up to others to get Jane the help she needs. That is the way the system is supposed to work. Sometime later, Jane was released from the hospital and returned home.

On Saturday night, officers also learned that Itasca County had previously held a civil commitment hearing to determine how to get Jane help. The judge ordered her committed but stayed the imposition of the commitment with the stipulation that Jane take her medications to help with depression and not drink alcohol. From what officers found Saturday night, this clearly was not the case.

On Monday morning, the county attorney explained that Minnesota law does not allow her office to do anything further regarding the violation of the judge’s order until the county attorney receives a recommendation from Jane’s Case Manager. We learned that Itasca County Health and Human Services contracts with a private non-profit company, North Homes, to provide a Case Manager. It is CRT’s responsibility to communicate with the Case Manager. It is the Case Manager’s responsibility to communicate with Itasca County Health and Human Services and the Itasca County Attorney’s Office.

We heard that on Wednesday, four days after police brought Jane to the hospital emergency room, the Case Manager met with Jane. Jane then returned, alone, to her home.  

On Wednesday night, just hours after this meeting, Grand Rapids Police Officers were notified that Jane had again threatened to commit suicide. Now she was out driving in her automobile.  Officers began searching the town for her car. Using triangulation off cell phone towers, Itasca County Sheriff’s Dispatchers located the general vicinity in which her cell phone was being used. This was near Deer River. Jane made statements that she wanted to die. She had made past statements that she wanted to commit “suicide by cop.” Officers’ reports indicate she believed she was seeing “aliens.”

Itasca County Sheriff’s Deputies and Deer River Police Officers began searching for Jane’s car.  They spotted it being driven at a high rate of speed on State Highway 6. They tried to stop it. Jane fled from officers, driving at over 105 miles per hour, at times in the opposing traffic lane. Eventually, Jane’s car came to a stop in the ditch. She fled on foot into the woods. Deputies and officers found her. She was drunk. Once again, Jane ended up in the emergency room. By Thursday afternoon, Jane was in a locked medical facility where she will receive treatment for her addiction and depression.

Our police officers and deputies only have legal authority to transport someone to the hospital emergency room if they are a danger to themselves or others. That is all they can do. They are not experts in addiction or mental illness. Sometimes, it appears to our police officers and deputies that they are the only ones that really care. They are the only ones that proactively do something about the addicted and mentally ill, and that is limited to a short-term band-aid solution in the midst of a crisis. Of course, that is not true. Others do care. What is true, is that the system is complex, underfunded and fragmented.

It is easy to criticize the system and much harder to do something about it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The Grand Rapids Police Department, Itasca County Sheriff’s Department, Itasca County Health and Human Services, Itasca County Crisis Response Team, North Homes, Itasca County Probation Department, Leech Lake Police Department and the Minnesota Department of Corrections are jointly applying for a federal U. S. Department of Justice grant. The goal is to hire a person to make sure that there is more intense follow-up of those who are addicted to chemicals and suffer from mental illness. Whether or not the federal government will award us the grant funding isn’t known at this time. Frankly, it is a long shot as the grant is really targeted toward opium addiction, but we never know unless we try.

The tragedy is that this story is replayed every week in communities across Minnesota. It does make me wonder, however, “How many other Janes don’t get the timely help they need?” Are we doing all we can? God loves them just as much as He loves you and me. Each life is precious.

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