Dakota County to get SMARTer

submitted graphic • The SMART Center will cost an estimated $13.2 million and be located one mile south of Inver Hills Community College, accessible from Highway 52/55 and Interstate 494. The location makes it convenient to first responders from around the state.

New crisis training facility receives state funding


It’s something that’s in the news nationwide: police needing training to be better equipped to handle people in crisis. 

In May, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Capital Investment Bill, which included $6.2 million of funding for the SMART Center, which will be housed in Inver Grove Heights near Highway 52/55 and Concord Boulevard. The estimated $13.2 million center, slated to open in the spring of 2020, will be a place for all first responders to receive crisis intervention training.



The Safety and Mental Health Alternative Response Training Center will be a place where first responders can learn the best approach and best ways to help someone during a crisis, said Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie.

In 2017, the Minnesota Legislature gave the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training $6 million for the next four years for that purpose. 

“The money is flowing to law enforcement,” Leslie said. “We just need a venue that will host that training because right now a lot of contractors kind of operate out of a van and trailer.” 

He added that training classrooms are currently set up in public schools and other government buildings across the state. The SMART Center will be a centralized spot where instructors can train.

Leslie said some of the best training law enforcement and other first responders have received in years involves live actors portraying people in crisis, and that deputies have used the techniques they learned in the training successfully in the field. Such training will be available at the center.

“It’s been proven that it works, so we just need to spread the word,” Leslie said.

The center will be important because it’s not just for frontline law enforcement — it’s for all first responders as well as 911 dispatchers.

Leslie said if a 911 dispatcher, who gets a call first, can be trained to discern if someone is in crisis, it’s best to get that information to first responders. This way when they get there, they have an understanding of what they are facing. 

Beyond training, the center will also house the Dakota County Electronic Crimes Unit, Dakota County Drug Task Force, Dakota County Criminal Justice Network and the Sheriff’s Water Rescue and Recovery Fleet.

The SMART center will not only offer the ability for first responders to train in a single location but will also allow for more and easier interactions with the mental health community. 

The Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team will have office space at the center, and Michael Peterson, executive director for Minnesota CIT, said the organization can host meetings with mental health providers and possibly share some of the space with the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Minnesota or other similar groups.


The need for training

Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI-Minnesota, said a crisis is when a person’s behavior puts them at risk of hurting themselves or others. It can also be when they are not able to resolve a situation with the skills and resources available. 

Abderholden said someone in a crisis can range from a person who is feeling suicidal to having a manic episode, hallucinating, hearing voices or having delusional thoughts. 

“How you respond to a crisis is different than how you respond to a criminal act,” she said. “You take it slow, assess the situation, use de-escalation techniques, speak quietly and with empathy. You don’t argue or try to reason, [you] keep stimulation level low and try to connect with the person. You provide empathy.”

Abderholden said there is a huge need for this kind of training. She said that not only are mental health crisis calls on the rise, but so are responses to people with a substance use disorder. She said all first responders need to know how to effectively handle a crisis call in order to provide best outcomes. 

Peterson said CIT training is focused around first responders and mental health professionals responding to crisis situations. Trainees learn skills during a 40-hour course on how to interact and de-escalate those kinds of situations peacefully.

The beginning of the course is when trainees develop an understanding and awareness of what causes people to escalate situations, he said. Speakers will come in and talk about the struggle they may have had and how their interactions with first responders may have worked in the past.

Peterson said that during training, they will look at skill sets to improve the empathy, understanding and compassion of first responders before moving on to role play with actors.

Interactions with someone in a crisis have a tendency to escalate.

“First responders arriving on scene sometimes show [up as] a person in a position of authority, dictating behavior. If someone is overwhelmed or in crisis at that time, that anxiety may increase and their symptoms may increase,” Peterson said.


Help from the state

The SMART Center received $6.2 million in state funding at the end of this last legislative session.

“I don’t know what we would have done if the Legislature wouldn’t have acted on this,” Leslie said, noting the center was the No. 1 priority of the county board and that every Dakota County legislator had expressed their support for it.

Sen. Matt Klein sponsored the SMART Center proposal in the Senate.

“Law enforcement and first responders today too often are our first point of contact with psychiatric instability or substance abuse,” Klein said in a statement. “The new SMART center in Inver Grove Heights will equip our officers with the tools to intervene with skill and compassion in these circumstances.”

Rep. Regina Barr was the chief author of the center bill in the House that was included in the bonding bill, requesting the $6.2 million in funding to be matched by the county.

Barr said when the Legislature required in 2017 for all police officers to go through crisis intervention training, the challenge was no longer funding, but housing. 

“[The center will] provide a permanent home for this training,” Barr said. “That just means I think our police officers will get better training, more consistent training and, quite frankly, will have the ability to more efficiently provide this service.”


– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com

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