Title: Program Manager, Performance & Innovation
When Gina Obiri and her colleagues in Minneapolis asked residents how they felt about shifting certain service calls from police to other responders, it touched a nerve.
More than 8,000 responses came in to a pair of surveys, along with a staggering 23,551 personal comments and suggestions. Obiri and her team at the Office of Performance & Innovation read each one of them—work she calls a “labor of love.”
The extensive community feedback significantly shaped two groundbreaking pilot programs that launched in Minneapolis last month. One of them is targeted at calls for help with persons experiencing mental health emergencies. Instead of sending police out to respond, those calls are now answered by two-person behavioral response teams trained in crisis intervention and counseling. The second pilot is aimed at non-emergency calls, such as problems with street parking or reporting low-level property crimes; those calls now primarily get routed to 311 or an online form.
Work on developing the pilots began in late 2019. Initially, Obiri’s resident engagement plan included a number of one-on-one interviews and focus groups. But when COVID-19 made in-person outreach difficult, she went all-in on the community survey approach. After George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, a flood of residents took the opportunity to offer their insights.
The surveys clearly showed deep discomfort with having police respond to behavioral health and non-emergency calls, Obiri says, particularly among persons of color. Many residents said they decide against 911 in these situations for fear that a police response could put themselves, family, or neighbors in harm’s way.
“We were really appreciative that the community took the opportunity to share their experiences and feedback and ideas,” Obiri says. “There was this immeasurable grief, and civil unrest, and all the effects of the pandemic. And it just fueled our commitment to making sure that we did read through all 23,551 of those open-ended responses. It was our duty to make sure that we really got all the information that we could from their experiences.”
Obiri continued engaging residents when it came to prototyping the pilots. Working with a specialist in human-centered design, the Minneapolis team joined residents over a video link to role-play different situations and adjust the program design based on real-time feedback. Prototyping pointed to the need to make mental health training and specialists available to 911 operators responsible for triaging incoming calls. Residents also wanted educational resources aimed at helping them to understand mental health crises and when to call for help.
The pilots have been running for about six weeks. Obiri says there’s a lot of demand for both programs and that positive feedback is coming in from callers, dispatchers, and the behavioral crisis teams on the streets. “They’re new programs, so there’s definitely some operational kinks we’re working out,” Obiri says. “But the community has definitely appreciated that there’s a new option when folks are having behavioral health emergencies.”
Pro tip: “Quantitative data isn’t enough to tell a full story. True innovation lives within the experience of the people who are behind that data.”