Solution makers: Cops and counselors on the beat in Clearwater

A young professional woman not unlike a sister, friend, or coworker you chat with on a daily basis has called her Employee Assistance Program because she feels seriously depressed. 

An insurance rep responds and refers her to a mobile crisis unit. When the distressed woman tells the operator she’s having thoughts of suicide and is in possession of “pills,” a call to law enforcement must be made, but instead dispatching an officer prepared to “Baker Act” an individual who’s a threat to herself and/or others -- which in Florida involves a brief, mandatory stay in a mental health facility -- the woman receives a visit from a police unit staffed by trained counselors who talk her down from her emotional state and help her begin to get treatment and heal from her recent traumas.  

The above scenario happened recently, and the police officers called, Carissa Costello and Cheryl Wood, work under the authority of the Clearwater Police Department and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office as part of a new task force to help people in the community dealing with mental health issues. 

“There are two of us from Clearwater and six officers and deputies from the Sheriff's Office,” explains Costello. “Each one of us has a crisis response specialist that works with us, and they ride in the car with us.”

The mental health unit responds to calls involving challenges better served by someone with a mental health background. The officers work closely with trained crisis response specialists on calls. The unit is part of a growing national trend to delegate mental health professionals to non-criminally-caused crises. 
“Often, law enforcement is the first responder to calls involving mental illness, and has the least effective tool -- the Baker Act -- to address mental illness long-term,” says Police Chief Dan Slaughter. “The Baker Act is a short-term solution for a person in crisis to be stabilized. This unit will make sure the most effective tools are applied to people based on their medical condition and it will provide the necessary follow-up to ensure connection to the proper service.”
Clearwater police respond to at least 1,400 calls for service involving mental illness every year, Slaughter told the Tampa Bay Times, and many more calls may involve underlying mental health issues. 

Since Feb. 1, the officers have been responding to a variety of police calls for service in which their expertise will come in handy, including overdose, welfare check, neighbor problem, emotionally disturbed person, domestic and suicidal threats. Other communities have adopted similar procedures including St. Petersburg, a community assistance liaison unit 83 Degrees reported on last year

The new crisis response unit covers the city of Clearwater, with a focus on its east side and a surrounding area of Pinellas County bordered by State Road 580, Belleair Road, McMullen Booth Road, and Highland Avenue. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri deputized the Clearwater officers so they can respond to calls for the unit outside city limits if needed.

Officer Costello joined the CPD in 2019. She worked in mental health as a counselor for 10 years in New York before relocating to Florida -- after working with homeless people as a case manager and in a jail as a clinician for six years. She also had a private practice before becoming a cop in New York.

Costello says she’s been interested in the overlap between law enforcement and mental health for some time. “When this position was announced, it was kind of the best way to do it right,” she says.

According to a recent report by NPR, nearly a quarter of all people killed by police officers in America since 2015 have had a known mental illness. Sadly, some of these deaths have resulted despite the deployment of a crisis intervention team.

While some police crisis intervention teams across the country have come under fire for not doing enough, and others say that real change won’t take place until governments address a serious lack of services and facilities, “much research has shown an improvement in attitudes and a reduction of stigma in police officers who received mental health training,” reported the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

The urgency is all too apparent to local mental health agencies. “The 911 system is inundated with requests for help from the community for an assortment of mental health-influenced situations,” says Clara Reynolds, CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. 

“Our police officers are called upon to perform a variety of duties that fall outside the scope of law enforcement,” she says. “Their primary focus is criminal justice, but they often find themselves in a behavioral-health or social work situation. I applaud the fact that community leaders like Sheriff Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway, and Sheriff Gualtieri n Pinellas are recognizing the need for more resources; providing additional, specialized training for law enforcement officers; and directly connecting behavioral health professionals to people who need help.”

In Largo, the city’s police department joined forces with the nonprofit Directions for Living to form a mental health unit in 2018, employing veteran Officers Albin Soto and Social Worker Tiana Audet. They use a crisis intervention model known as CIT, first used in Memphis to offer a procedure to respond to all non-criminal 911 calls involving mental health.

“It’s a great feeling to help those who are struggling to get the help that they need,” Officer Costello says. “One of our goals is to reduce mental health hospitalizations by ensuring people are provided with the appropriate referrals and resources to maintain stability.”

For more information, visit the Clearwater Police Department.
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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 grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor 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.