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Fargo-area law enforcement rely on police negotiators to respond to violent mental health crises

The goal is to keep people safe, law enforcement said. In an effort to prevent exposing mental health experts and social workers to danger, officers typically won't call them to incidents involving violence, Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said.

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Law enforcement personnel gather at the scene of a shooting involving a suicidal individual in the area of Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue North in Mapleton on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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Editor's note: If you or a loved one is in crisis, you can call or text the  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. The hotline is answered locally.

FARGO — When responding to a mental health crisis that involves violence, local law enforcement agencies rely on their own negotiation teams instead of reaching out to social workers or outside mental health experts.

That’s because officers want to involve as few people as possible in an effort to keep others safe, Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said.

“We wouldn't want to put anyone in that dangerous of a situation,” he said.

Andrew Martinez.jpeg
Andrew Martinez
Submitted Photo by Martinez Family

That’s what happened when officers responded to reports of shots fired in Mapleton, North Dakota, earlier this month. Law enforcement also received reports of a man experiencing a mental health crisis.

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During the hourslong standoff, officers commanded the man, later identified as 35-year-old Andrew James Martinez, of Mapleton, to come out unarmed. Martinez said he would come out with his gun, according to Jahner.

Fargo police, who were called to the scene to assist the Sheriff's Office, fatally shot Martinez after he exited a house with a gun, law enforcement said.

Before the shooting, Martinez remained in a house surrounded by officers for roughly four hours as a Red River SWAT negotiator spoke with him, Jahner said. The negotiator has additional training in crisis intervention, which is done in collaboration with mental health professionals, social workers and law enforcement in Fargo, West Fargo and Cass County, he said.

Those mental health professionals and social workers practice different situations with officers so law enforcement can work on de-escalation techniques, the sheriff said.

Determining how to respond to a mental health crisis depends on the situation, Fargo Police Lt. Bill Ahlfeldt said. Fargo police also have extensive training in crisis intervention, he said.

“Every incident is specific, so there’s any number of responses that we could have,” he said.

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For situations in which a person is suffering a crisis without posing a threat to the community, law enforcement will call mental health experts or services, Jahner and Ahlfeldt said.

Officers will respond to the area if they may need to intervene, but they try to stay out of view if their presence could upset a person in crisis, Jahner said. They may try to speak with the person if the person is willing, he said. Responding agencies also will try to get the person services.

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Officers would respond to a person who is having a crisis and is exhibiting violent behavior like they would any barricade incident or critical situation, Ahlfeldt said. They would bring negotiators in and try to bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion while trying to keep the community safe, he said.

In the situation in Mapleton, Martinez was suspected of firing multiple shots and being involved in criminal activity, Jahner said. Law enforcement would not call outside help for a person engaging in violent behavior, the sheriff said.

The goal was to ensure everyone in the immediate area was safe, he said. Law enforcement ordered a shelter-in-place for the city. They then set up a perimeter to prevent others from going into the home and to keep Martinez contained, Jahner said.

The sheriff described talks as up and down. Martinez would get upset, then he would speak with officers, Jahner said.

“They weren’t necessarily upset that we were talking to them,” he said. “They were upset at the situation and some of the things that had happened prior to us arriving.”

Sometimes, agencies will call families to the scene if the person having a nonviolent mental health crisis requests to speak with family members, Jahner said. Often, family will already be on scene, Ahlfeldt said.

Officers may be able to get helpful information from family if they are at the scene, Ahlfeldt said. Family members also may help resolve the situation, Jahner noted.

“Typically, we don’t try to get a bunch of family members coming in because we don’t want anyone else to get hurt,” he said.

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In Martinez’s case, his father and brother showed up to the scene, Jahner said. The Sheriff’s Office did not ask them to come, he added.

Jahner said his department has done a preliminary debriefing on the Mapleton incident and will do a more expansive one later. He said he feels the negotiator in Martinez’s case did everything he could to get Martinez to come out safely.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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