St. Petersburg social workers go to 911 calls. What’s the program’s future?

“We’re leading the way right now in law enforcement from this little city,” one community organizer said.
Social workers Bill Li, left, and Angela Catton respond to a call and talk with a couple on their porch.
Social workers Bill Li, left, and Angela Catton respond to a call and talk with a couple on their porch. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 31, 2023|Updated Aug. 1, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — It was the first call of the morning: A man was threatening to jump off a bridge.

The decision was made quickly — Tianna Audet and Angela Catton would respond. Neither is a cop.

The pair were 16 minutes away. Catton got on the phone with the 21-year-old man.

“My name is Angela,” she said. “I’m a social worker. I understand you’re having a hard time. We’re on our way.”

Just over two years ago, St. Petersburg Police Department officers with limited mental health training would have responded. But in 2021, after George Floyd’s murder led to calls for police reform, the agency began sending social workers to suicide threats, overdoses and other emergencies related to mental health, substance abuse or poverty.

At first, officers accompanied them, which was a common way that many law enforcement agencies, including several in the Tampa Bay area, adjusted to demands for change.

Months later, however, St. Petersburg’s social workers began going to calls without police, making the agency one of only a handful across the country to do so. The rationale, department leaders said, was that social workers would offer a more soothing response to people in crisis, whereas the presence of armed cops could escalate matters.

The program had an immediate impact: In the first nine months, social workers responded to more than half of the city’s police calls in which no crime was committed, according to a study by the University of South Florida.

During nearly 9,000 encounters with the public, and without the presence of officers, no injuries have been reported.

As the program approaches its third year, the police department is preparing to ask the city on Thursday for an additional $400,000 per year to expand.

It’s hard to quantify success. For instance, the number of incidents in which St. Petersburg police have involuntarily detained people for mental health issues under Florida’s Baker Act has declined in St. Petersburg over the past two years, but that trend began years before and also has been occurring everywhere. The number of people local police involuntarily detained for substance abuse issues, under the Marchman Act, declined from 2020 to 2021. But that number rose again last year.

But both social workers and police officers say the program works. So do many of the people who protested and called for reform after Floyd’s murder.

“Other cities and other locations are watching what we’re doing here in St. Pete,” said Jabaar Edmond, a local community organizer. “We’re leading the way right now in law enforcement from this little city.”

Social worker Christopher Rodriguez, left, talks with program director Tianna Audet at the Disston Plaza Resource Center.
Social worker Christopher Rodriguez, left, talks with program director Tianna Audet at the Disston Plaza Resource Center. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

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Evaluating success

Social workers with the unit, called the Community Assistance and Life Liaison program, respond to a wide range of incidents including truancy, neighborhood disputes, overdoses and panhandling.

The unit operates from 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, and also runs a 24/7 phone line for previous clients.

“We have a significant amount of calls that we have successfully diverted as designed,” said Megan McGee, an assistant director with the police department who helped launch the program in partnership with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services Inc.

Police officers and civilian employees in the department can also send people to the program, which has seen more than 2,100 referrals, mostly from police.

Dispatchers for the 911 line screen calls before routing them to social workers, asking if anyone involved in the incident has a weapon and checking the caller’s location for a history of violent incidents. The social workers aren’t sent if dispatchers suspect the possibility of violence.

On average, the unit takes about seven minutes to arrive, on par with St. Petersburg police average response times.

A map showing calls for service in St. Petersburg that were not criminal in nature, created for the University of South Florida's evaluation of the Community Assistance and Life Liaison program.
A map showing calls for service in St. Petersburg that were not criminal in nature, created for the University of South Florida's evaluation of the Community Assistance and Life Liaison program. [ Courtesy of Ken Copenhaver ]

In late February, community leaders gathered at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to discuss the program. The foundation funded a study by the Center for Justice Research and Policy at the University of South Florida. Edelyn Verona, co-director of the center, presented the results.

She said the program seems to be working. Still, Verona highlighted a few areas of concern.

The evaluation found that St. Petersburg police were nearly twice as likely to respond to calls involving juveniles as the unit.

Verona said some of those could have come in as domestic violence calls, which social workers would not respond to. Or they could have come from inside schools, where a resource officer would have responded.

Verona said the unit is working to improve communication with schools so officials there rely less on police. The unit also hired a youth specialist, said Audet, the program’s director.

Another concern: The USF study found that follow-up contacts were more common in communities with more white residents. A follow-up is when the unit reconnects with someone with whom it had previously met. It can be as simple as a phone call or referrals to mental health providers.

Verona said this could be because communities of color may experience more problems with housing stability and unemployment, meaning contact information for residents there may be less accurate.

Verona said communities of color also could have less trust in programs that have affiliations with police, and may not want follow ups.

Other city data suggests that the program may be helping, though it’s murky.

Marchman Acts carried out by local police, which involve the involuntary evaluation or treatment of substance abuse issues, dipped from 38 instances to 30 incidents from 2020 to 2021. But that number nearly doubled from 2021 to 2022, with police carrying out 57 involuntary detainments.

Meanwhile, detentions under the Baker Act by St. Petersburg police, in which people are involuntarily committed because they may be a threat to themselves or others, decreased by roughly 7% from 2020 to 2021 and again by about 6% the next year.

The unit can place people under an involuntary hold under the Baker Act or Marchman Act. The program does not count Baker Act and Marchman Act detainments separately, though its social workers rarely use the latter.

In 2021, the unit placed clients on an involuntary hold 55 times. That number dipped to 40 in 2022, then rose to 41 in the first six months of this year. However, involuntary holds have made up less than 3% of contacts each year.

Program leaders say the numbers indicate that social workers are stabilizing a high need population.

The decrease mirrors figures in other cities that have launched mental health units, though a decrease in involuntarily commitments has been a national trend since 2018, years before the program started.

Jeffrey Coots, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who directs a program in New York City focused on public health solutions to crime, said social workers are better suited to handle these situations.

“When the mental health clinicians arrive on scene,” Coots said, “they’re better able to triage what the needs are and so they’re just literally transporting fewer people to the hospital.”

Community responses

Community leaders who urged reform during the 2020 protests say they were cautiously optimistic about the program.

“We were a little surprised at the announcement at the time, pleasantly, though, but it was just one of those moments in movement history where it’s like, ‘OK, we’re pushing for something,’” said St. Petersburg council member Brother John Muhammad, who was among those calling for change.

Muhammad and others, such as Edmond, the community organizer, met with the administration to keep tabs on the program. Both say they are generally pleased with the results.

“I really would like to commend those who were willing to risk their own safety and security by marching in the streets and demanding change, and really advocating for this program,” Muhammad said. “I don’t think they get enough credit for the work that they did to get the ball rolling.”

Will Kilgore, a local organizer with St. Pete Cop Watch, said the unit has responded to an “impressive” amount of calls. He hopes the program might one day work independently of the police department so funding for the two could be separate.

“We should be increasing the funding if we see something working,” he said.

While some would like to see the unit expand to include some calls involving violence, McGee said that the program would likely go back to using a “co-response” model in which social workers arrive with police by their side.

“When you talk about expansion into different types of calls, I can understand why (for) a lot of other municipalities that is their model,” she said. “But what makes our approach different is we did really want to identify the calls that were noncriminal, nonviolent.”

Social workers Bill Li, left, and Angela Catton respond to a police call.
Social workers Bill Li, left, and Angela Catton respond to a police call. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Looking ahead

The police department is asking for a three-year renewal of the program, with a yearly budget of nearly $1.7 million. The unit, which employs 21 people, currently costs about $1.3 million per year to run. That’s about 1% of the police department’s 2023 budget of $133 million.

Program leaders want to hire two more social workers and a supervisor, and expand the program’s hours to 2 a.m. McGee said the police department is also looking to get a new office.

When Catton and Audet responded to the man threatening to jump off a bridge, the pair arrived in the team’s leased minivan, nicknamed the “Soccer Mom Van.”

They took their time with the man. His girlfriend thought he had cheated on her. He was struggling with giving her space, and she was remaining distant.

For the next 10 minutes or so, the three talked. Audet and Catton asked how he had handled situations like this before. How was he going to spend the rest of the day? Was there anyone he could be with?

Near the end of the conversation, he told the pair he just really needed to talk.

Before they left, Catton told him she would check back in about 15 minutes. He had to answer, she told him.

When back in the van, the pair discussed how they could help the man further, including counseling options.

Audet pulled into the parking lot of the team’s office when Catton called the man again.

“You’ve got my number, and anytime you feel bad, I want you to call me or you can call the helpline,” Catton said.

He sounded much better, Catton told Audet when she got off the phone.