Police in St. Petersburg to step back from nonviolent emergency calls

Soon, social workers will respond to certain nonviolent calls, not cops.
Protesters projected "Black Lives Matter" above the sign for the St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters on Wednesday.
Protesters projected "Black Lives Matter" above the sign for the St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters on Wednesday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published July 9, 2020|Updated July 10, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Amid national and local calls for police reform, city and police leaders announced on Thursday that some nonviolent calls to police will soon be handled by social workers rather than uniformed officers.

Social workers will respond to calls in St. Petersburg about people who are intoxicated or have overdosed, people who are in mental health crises or are suicidal, homelessness, neighbor disputes and disorderly kids or truants. The social workers will be in regular clothes and will not be armed.

The change, which could go into effect by Oct. 1, comes after protesters have assembled daily since May 31, days after a white police officer in Minneapolis kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for almost eight minutes, leading to his death.

Related: Meet St. Pete’s accidental protest leader, who found he has something to say

Protesters in St. Petersburg last week released a list of demands. Among them: “decouple access to healthcare from policing by building separate institutions for clinical dispatches” that would handle mental health and drug overdose calls. Protesters also wanted social workers to respond to domestic violence and abuse calls. Under this city’s plan, those calls will still be answered by officers.

“Our citizens are asking for change,” said Police Chief Anthony Holloway during Thursday’s news conference at police headquarters. “The city of St. Petersburg and our police department are ready for change.”

The first step toward the new initiative, which city leaders dubbed the Community Assistance Liaison program, will be to solicit bids from social services companies. The earliest the program could be implemented is Oct 1, which is the beginning of the new fiscal year.

After that, social workers will be able to respond to 911 calls that fit those categories rather than uniformed officers, and the social workers will be empowered to follow up the next day. The social workers could call for an officer, should that become necessary.

The program will be funded through by a $3.1 million federal grant, plus a $3.8 million city match, that were going to be used to hire 25 more officers. Police estimate it will save officers from responding to about 12,700 calls for service each year, about 5 percent of the 259,800 calls the department receives each year.

The Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association supported the change, despite the loss of new officers.

“Reducing the police response to non criminal incidents has been a long standing issue, and it should, in turn, increase police visibility, crime reduction and police availability to our citizens,” said union president Jonathan Vazquez, who serves as a canine officer. “We believe this will lead to decreased strain on our police resources, reduce risk to our member officers, and better outcomes to the most vulnerable citizens that we serve.”

Other law enforcement agencies throughout the Tampa Bay area said they were reviewing or changing procedure. Mental health professionals will be working with Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies, while Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said city officials are working with a community policing task force to consider the future of policing.

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Castor said the task force will “work together to address the future of policing and issues of social justice that have plagued some of our residents for too long. These conversations will also include discussions around systemic community issues such as access to reliable transportations systems, work force development and housing affordability. We must work together moving forward to ensure that opportunity and prosperity is attainable for all.”

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan offered praise for St. Petersburg’s plan: “I think their plan is a great idea. I will follow up with Chief Holloway to see how their program is going.”

Holloway also announced changes to the department’s hiring practices and training regimen:

Deescalation and self defense training will go from one time per year to two. Holloway said more self defense training will give officers more options before they feel they must use their weapons.

Recruits and new officers will receive more cultural competency training, while civilian employees will undergo training to promote fair and impartial policing, which sworn officers already get annually.

The department will add a civilian to its hiring board, from either the St. Petersburg NAACP, Urban League, Leadership St. Petersburg or among community faith leaders.

Officers will also have to log an extra hour per week of “Park, Walk, and Talks” — when officers leave their cars and walk around the neighborhood they patrol talking to residents.

Holloway also promised to review the department’s use of force policy, how complaints are processed, who officers are arresting and why, and to monitor calls based solely on the basis of someone’s race.

“Believe it or not, we still get calls about ‘there’s an African American male sitting in the park, he doesn’t look like us,’” Holloway said. “We’re not coming to those calls. If that individual, he or she, is not committing a crime, we’re not going to that.”

During Thursday’s announcement, Mayor Rick Kriseman touted his efforts to address inequality, including creating the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, increasing the city’s minimum wage and creating youth programs. He said he himself is a protester, having led marches down Central Avenue against gun violence and chain businesses, attending the 2017 Women’s March at the city’s waterfront, and kneeling with protesters early when the Black Lives Matter demonstrations started.

Related: The protesters vs. the Pier. How St. Petersburg’s demonstrations evolved.

Kriseman announced that he wants to meet with protesters in a moderated discussion about improving the city. It could happen as early as next week.

”In St. Pete, we have no fight with peaceful protesters,” he said.

However, tensions between the protesters and the city have been on the rise. Protesters spent two nights this week marching through the recently opened $92 million St. Pete Pier district.

Police officials also announced plans to start issuing $62.50 tickets to demonstrators blocking traffic in response to what the department says have been hundreds of complaints lodged by residents in recent weeks.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.