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St. Pete firefighters question social services worker idea. The city looks for answers

St. Petersburg's firefighters and paramedics depend on police officers for security. So what happens when the city starts sending social workers to help instead?
The downtown headquarters of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Department on July 16.
The downtown headquarters of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Department on July 16. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jul. 23, 2020
Updated Jul. 23, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — City leaders announced this month that noncriminal and nonviolent calls will be handled by professionals in social work, not uniformed officers. The proposed program is a response to the demands for police reform from Black Lives Matter protesters.

“Our citizens are asking for change,” St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway told the media during the July 9 announcement. “The city of St. Petersburg and our police department are ready for change.”

But one constituency is not ready: the city’s firefighters and paramedics.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue firefighter Richard Pauley Jr., president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 747, said the union had “no forewarning” of the city’s plans.

When an emergency is reported to 911, police officers usually arrive at the scene first. They make sure the area is safe for firefighters and paramedics to do their jobs.

But if officers start going to less calls, that could raise the risks faced by other first-responders — such as paramedics encountering a hostile patient who needs medical attention.

In a letter to the union’s 412 members, Pauley explained that fire department leaders will begin discussions with city officials to ensure firefighters are kept safe when responding to emergency calls. He declined to share the letter with the Tampa Bay Times.

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

He wants to know how much crisis training the social services workers responding to calls will get.

“These are potentially violent situations our firefighters go into,” Pauley said.

But the firefighters’ union isn’t rejecting the program. Pauley said that he’s waiting to find out what the city has planned, and St. Petersburg officials are working on that.

“The prospect of having social services workers instead of armed officers to provide protection for our crews is a concern,” he said. “But we’re not going to have a knee-jerk reaction to something that we don’t know anything about.”

• • •

Starting Oct. 1, a new St. Petersburg Police Department program called the Community Assistance Liaison will start sending social services workers and paramedics to 911 calls deemed “non-criminal and non-violent,” said police spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez.

The city’s research, she said, shows nonviolent calls are unlikely to turn violent when unarmed first responders arrive. She said that could actually defuse a situation.

“We see that calls sometimes turn violent because police officers are there,” Fernandez said. “If someone without a weapon comes then results may be different.”

Police spokesperson Rafael Lopez said a company will be hired to provide crisis training for social services workers. The city is also still devising how the Community Assistance Liaison teams will operate.

Related: ‘It’s time to change:’ Police in Pinellas to partner on use-of-force investigations

The city had planned to hire 25 more police officers over the next two years by spending $3.8 million to match a $3.1 million federal grant. Instead, the $3.8 million will be used to fund the liaison program. The city will no longer hire the additional officers and gave up the federal grant.

Police estimate the program will save officers from having to respond to about 12,700 calls each year, about 5 percent of the 259,800 calls the department receives annually, Lopez said.

City officials initially planned to have social services workers respond to calls for “disorderly intoxication,” Fernandez said, but recently decided that officers should still handle those because they have the potential to become violent.

• • •

Fernandez said one potential model for the liaison program that St. Petersburg is looking at is the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets program in Eugene, Ore. — also known as CAHOOTS.

Established 31 years ago, the initiative was created by White Bird Clinic, a mental health and crisis service facility, and the Eugene Police Department. After dispatchers decide a call is nonviolent and would be best handled through behavioral health expertise, according to the program’s website, a crisis worker and paramedic are sent to the scene together.

Last year, the Eugene program said it responded to 20 percent of the calls made to 911 and only had to call for police back-up for 150 of the 24,000 calls it handled in 2019. The program says it saved the city $14 million in ambulance and other emergency medical costs by caring for those threatening to harm themselves on-site.

Eugene crisis worker Ebony Morgan wrote in an email to the Times that in the program’s three decades, no staffer or patient has died or suffered a major injury.

When they approach someone who needs help, she said, letting them know that the team is unarmed, and not punitive, helps keep them from reacting in fear.

“We reduce harm and save money …,” Morgan said. “We take a significant workload that was never intended for police officers off of their very full plate.”

Another similar program in Dallas, Texas is the Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team, or RIGHT Care. It was launched in 2018 to serve south central Dallas, which has the highest level of mental health-related calls in the city, said Kurtis Young, director of social work and behavioral health services at Parkland Health & Hospital System.

The program assigns a Parkland psychiatric social worker to the city’s 911 call center to identify emergency mental health calls. A police car with five officers first arrives on scene and leaves when the integrated healthcare team comes and takes over, Young said.

The team consists of a police officer, a paramedic and a social worker assigned to the same vehicle. After the police officer ensures that the scene is safe and no weapons are present, the social worker conducts a “psychosocial risk assessment” and the medic provides any necessary medical treatment.

Young said city leaders and social workers weren’t comfortable responding to situations without officers being there.

“The calls can change very quickly,” Young said. “You don’t know how they’re going to turn out. So we’re not comfortable not having officers there.”

He said turning social workers into first-responders has benefited officers.

“Police officers are learning from our social workers,” he said. “They’re learning that there’s a different way to do things.”

What calls will social services workers answer?

St. Petersburg police say these are the kinds of calls for help the city plans to send social services workers to instead of officers:

Baker Act (Involuntary commitment for mental health evaluation.)

Disorderly Juvenile

Drug Overdose

Homeless Complaints

Intoxicated Person

Marchman Act (Involuntary commitment for addiction.)

Mental Health

Neighborhood Concerns

Neighborhood Dispute

Panhandling

Person with a Mental Illness

Poverty

Substance Abuse

Suicide Threat

Transporting a Person with a Mental Illness

Truancy

Youth

• • •

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