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Top 10: Dakota County brought on an app that aims to help improve interaction with vulnerable people

Editor's note: This story is part of a series looking back at some of the biggest stories of 2018. Find the rest of the series here: Top Ten 2018.

In February, Dakota County was the first county to adopt an app that aimed to improve interactions between law enforcement and vulnerable county residents.

The Twin Cities-based company Vitals Aware Service and Dakota County partnered earlier this year to use an app that pairs police officer's phones with vulnerable residents' information in hopes of reducing the chance of a potentially dangerous encounter. Since implementation, there have been 355 different residents' profiles made on the app, according to county data. "We heard about Vitals ... and said 'this is exactly the type of tool we need,'" said Andria Zuber, the county's head of social services. The tech works likes this — when an officer approaches a vulnerable person who has signed up for the app and carries a "beacon" it instantly sends an alert to the officer's phone. The officer can then look at their phone and get information on the person, along with provided tools on how to calm situations that could be escalating for the person.

The county originally explored improving its services with vulnerable county residents in 2014, Zuber said. They realized there was a need for a "different way of interacting with police if (vulnerable residents) encounter them on the street," she said.

And even though the county had a lower total of people in jail with mental health issues than the state and national average, Zuber said law enforcement officials pushed for a tool that could work directly with vulnerable populations.

Working across county departments was critical for improving on the dynamic countywide, she said.

"We needed to have strong relationships in place with the law enforcement," Zuber said. Since implementing it, every patrol officer in the sheriff's office has the app, which alerts the officer when they come within 80 feet of a registered user, said Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie.

A May press release announcing the partnership said that about 500 law enforcement officers would be trained to use Vitals, across the sheriff's office and 10 city police departments.

"If (the officer) has trouble connecting with Jane Doe, we have a video of Jane Doe's mom to show them or Jane Doe's mom can call in," he said. "It helps the police officers who have enlisted this aid in the community."

An October release announced that the company had expanded to Farmington Police Department, the 11th Dakota County agency to work with the company.