St. Pete Police explore alternatives to dispatching officers

Law enforcement personnel are sometimes called to handle situations that can spin out of control when an armed officer in uniform arrives on the scene.
 
In response to such behaviorally charged crises -- and amid a nationwide call for accountability in policing prompted by Black Lives Matter -- the St. Petersburg Police has proposed several de-escalating initiatives. One of the department’s more groundbreaking endeavors involves retaining a social service agency to respond to non-violent calls for service from the public.
 
St. Petersburg’s Community Assistance Liaison (CAL) program launches on October 1 and will expand the St. Pete Police’s approach to public safety by recruiting non-police professionals to assist with conflicts as delicate as suicidal threats and as minor as truancy or trespassing.

83 Degrees Media spoke to Yolanda Fernandez, St. Petersburg Police’s public information officer, to get some insight on how police personnel will dispatch CAL team members. She stipulated first that the “nuts and bolts” of how it will be executed are still in the planning stages, and that under no circumstances will CAL personnel be sent to situations involving any hint of violence or aggression — which most likely will eliminate a need for protective gear or police backup. The objective is to avoid sending officers if not required.

“We have not contracted with an outside agency yet,” Fernandez clarifies. “That's still being put out in an RFP (request for proposal). And once we do select a mental health services or social services agency that will take the program, then we will go through and deal with the specifics of particular calls.”
 
One scenario, Fernandez says, might involve a family member who's having a mental health crisis and threatening suicide. “Instead of dispatching a police officer who has some but fairly limited training in mental health to try to talk to the person, we send someone from our CAL team,” Fernandez explains.
 
The expectation is that a mental health counselor with conflict-resolution training can counsel people exhibiting troubling behavior on how to deal with their problems and point them in the right direction for assistance.
 
“If they need to be Baker-acted, the liaison will take them to a mental health facility via a transport service that's more appropriate than putting somebody with a mental health problem in a police car,” Fernandez adds.

A CAL team member will respond to calls from citizens dealing with intoxicated individuals who are at-risk healthwise, people with signs of a drug overdose, mental health crises and transport, suicide crises, disorderly and truant juveniles at school or elsewhere, panhandling, homeless complaints and neighborhood disputes.

Operations-wise, the agency would be responsible for hiring counselors and the St. Pete Police would be responsible for overseeing the project, taking the calls, dispatching them, providing a radio, and they can be in touch if they need assistance. It would be up to the agency to do the hiring and to manage their personnel and review their qualifications.

Handling personnel matters outside the police building “is tremendously helpful,” Fernandez says, because of the highly sensitive criminal material on the department’s computers. “We all have access to sensitive information here at the police department, and the standards and restrictions for being able to work inside this building are really quite high. So, for example, I know of one agency for drug rehabilitation that uses former addicts who later became counselors. Well, a formal former addict would not meet the qualifications to work inside our police building. So, see, by contracting with an outside agency, I think we're best able to get the right people to work with these folks who need help.”
 
According to a recent news release, the police department responded to approximately 12,700 calls for service on the above issues (out of a total of 259,800 calls for service) in 2019.

This new division will take over these calls rather than moving forward with a previous commitment to add 25 new officers over the next two years. The police department will lose $3,125,000 in federal grant funding awarded to pay for the new officers and $3.8 million the city had earmarked in matching funds required by the grant. The city will instead use those funds to pay for the new service.

Fernandez assures that dispatchers are trained to delegate personnel, and the St. Petersburg Police will monitor calls related to these issues for one year to determine whether the new approach has been successful, or whether officers will still be required to respond to these issues in addition to sending a CAL team member.

“A police officer will always be dispatched to violent or life-threatening situations,” Fernandez emphasizes.

Police Chief Anthony Holloway recently gave a presentation on plans to increase de-escalation training from the current requirement of one-time-a-year to two- times-a-year. Objectives include fair and impartial policing training for civilian employees of the police department (sworn officers already receive this training annually). Additional training for recruits will also be required. Recruits already receive Cultural Competency Training with community members, and they will also have to return after a year for additional training on Cultural Competency.

St. Petersburg Police officials also plan to add a civilian to its hiring board who will represent organizations such as the NAACP, Urban League, Faith Leaders, and Leadership St. Petersburg.

Park, Walk, and Talks (when officers park their patrol cars and walk the areas they patrol to get to know the people they serve) will go from one hour to two hours a week, and a comprehensive review to look for ways to improve Use of Force policy, how complaints are processed, who is being arrested and why, and monitoring calls based on race only.

As for the proposed CAL team, the St. Petersburg Police Department has taken cues from other agencies across the country that are already doing something to help them write up policies and instructions. A particularly successful and influential initiative, Oregon’s CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets) program has provided insights to the St. Pete Police.

“We’ve done research to learn how CAHOOTS solves problems with some calls versus others, and we can share from their experience and learn from them,” Fernandez says.
 
“For example, we had disorderly intoxication in our initial press release about CAL. Well, after doing some further research, we determined that those cases have a higher probability of escalating to some kind of aggression or violence. So we decided to take that off the list and continue to have an officer handle those situations. But if it's just an intoxicated person who is just sitting on the sidewalk, then there's no crime, which would be best suited for CAL personnel.”

Dr. LaDonna Butler, a licensed mental health counselor and prominent community thought leader, recently praised the initiative on Fox News and said CAL could be a model of how to better address numerous crises. 

“I believe that we are going to learn together as a community,” Dr. Butler says. “I think we’re going to find a way.” 

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Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto is a St. Petersburg-based writer whose recent assignments include arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine, Florida travel pieces in Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville, as well as features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.
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