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Clearwater police to join Pinellas sheriff’s mental health unit

A Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office unit that pairs deputies with social workers is expanding. Clearwater police officers are set to join the unit.
Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter, right, answers questions at a 2016 forum alongside Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, center, and St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway, left.
Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter, right, answers questions at a 2016 forum alongside Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, center, and St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway, left.
Published Jan. 21
Updated Jan. 21

The Clearwater Police Department is set to join an upcoming expansion of a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office unit that pairs deputies with social workers to respond to calls involving people in crisis.

The Clearwater City Council was set to vote Thursday on whether to approve an agreement between the two agencies, in which two police officers will join a mental health unit of six deputies. The city will also pay for two of the eight crisis response specialists employed by the Sheriff’s Office.

Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter
Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter [ Clearwater Police Department ]

Though the agreement hasn’t been formalized, law enforcement leaders are treating it as a done deal: Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter told an enthusiastic council at a work session Tuesday that he had already selected the officers who will team up with the social workers and hopes they’ll start work Feb. 1. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said training started Wednesday for both Clearwater officers and Pinellas deputies.

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Gualtieri announced in September his plans to expand the unit, which was formed in 2016, and to hire the social workers as agency employees rather than contracting with an outside organization. It also includes a Sheriff’s sergeant and corporal and a licensed mental health counselor who acts as the clinical supervisor for the social workers.

The scaling-up of the team comes as activists and many within law enforcement recognize that mental and behavioral health issues underpin many incidents officers respond to. It’s time, they believe, for those with mental health expertise to handle those situations. St. Petersburg plans to roll out a similar program, though in that version, social services workers will eventually respond to calls without police officers.

“The officers are essentially equipped with two tools when it comes to dealing with mental illness: their mouth and the Baker Act,” Slaughter, referring to Florida’s involuntary mental health examination law, told the council Tuesday. “And those are the only two resources they currently have.”

Related: Pinellas sheriff to expand unit that handles mental health-related calls

Clearwater police respond to at least 1,400 calls for service involving mental illness every year, Slaughter said, and many more calls may involve underlying mental health issues. He hopes the unit, which will also perform follow-up visits to connect people to resources, will reduce the amount of overall calls and repeat calls involving the same people, as well as the number of people jailed with mental illnesses.

The unit will initially cover the city, with a focus on its east side, and a surrounding chunk of Pinellas County, bordered by State Road 580, Belleair Road, McMullen Booth Road and Highland Avenue, Gualtieri said. He said he will deputize the Clearwater officers so they can respond to calls for the unit outside city limits if needed.

If the council approves the agreement Thursday, the city will pay the Sheriff’s Office $71,600 annually for each of the two social workers who will be paired with Clearwater police officers.

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The agreement doesn’t have a time limit, though Slaughter said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that the agency will participate for at least a year, then decide whether to continue or to terminate the partnership, which the agreement allows either side to do.

Gualtieri envisions the unit expanding into other parts of Pinellas County, he said, and if the Clearwater partnership goes well, the Sheriff’s Office could bring the county’s other, smaller agencies into the fold.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity and it’s a great partnership and collaboration to have a more effective response to people with significant mental and behavioral issues,” he said.