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

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says Florida doesn’t have enough resources to help those experiencing a mental health crisis. So he’s expanding a unit that can help.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he is expanding a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office unit that handles mental health calls and connects people with resources that can provide the help they need.

The agency formed its mental health unit in late 2016 with two teams consisting of one deputy and one social worker. The sheriff announced Wednesday that he is retooling how the teams are structured and expanding them to six deputies and six social workers, plus a clinical supervisor.

“We’re going to have a very broad-based comprehensive mental health unit that will be highly successful,” the sheriff told the Tampa Bay Times. “What we have to get away from is this notion we can dump more on the cops.”

Related: Pinellas Sheriff's Office tackles mental health one conversation at a time

Over the course of patrolling the community, law enforcement officers come across people who are experiencing a mental health crisis or acting out in a way that could be perceived as criminal, but is actually a symptom of their mental illness or substance abuse disorder.

Officers have limited options in those situations. They could arrest someone and take them to jail, or a law enforcement officer could use the Baker Act, a law that allows for the involuntary commitment of people determined to be a danger to themselves or others. The person is taken to a mental health crisis center for an evaluation and is then either released or held for further treatment.

The vast majority are released within a few days, Gualtieri said, because the crisis the person was experiencing stabilizes, or because the law wasn’t applied correctly to begin with.

The expanded mental health unit gives Pinellas deputies another option. Four of the deputy-social worker pairs will be responsible for responding to a call and initially assessing a person’s situation, the sheriff said. Then, those workers will hand off the case to one of the other two teams, which are responsible for following up and connecting the person with services or resources that can help them.

“They’ll handle it more in the longterm and go back every day if necessary, if that’s what it takes," Gualtieri said.

That could include referring someone to the Pinellas Integrated Care Alliance, a group made up of agencies including the Sheriff’s Office, Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services, or PEMHS. The alliance was formed in 2018 to fill what Gualtieri said was a gap in case management services for people with mental and behavioral health issues. They’ve since been working with 70 to 90 people at a time and have the capacity to take on up to 120 clients.

The alliance is a big reason why, Gualtieri said, he is expanding the mental health unit now. In the unit’s early stages, deputies and social workers were referring people to services and resources that already existed. But Gualtieri said there just weren’t enough of either. He echoed a common complaint among mental health advocates that Florida’s current system is “woefully inadequate.”

“That was kind of naive on my part,” he said. “We’re co-responding to nowhere because the services weren’t there to refer these people to."

Related: TIMES/HERALD INVESTIGATION: Insane. Invisible. In danger. Florida cut $100 million from its mental hospitals. Chaos quickly followed.
Benjamin Moreno, from left, and Erna Lopez in 2017 discussing the mental health of their son with Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Keith Jackson and caseworker La'Tonya Oats at the couple's home in the Lealman area. Jackson and Oats were part of the agency's first mental health unit that Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Wednesday he was expanding.
Benjamin Moreno, from left, and Erna Lopez in 2017 discussing the mental health of their son with Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Keith Jackson and caseworker La'Tonya Oats at the couple's home in the Lealman area. Jackson and Oats were part of the agency's first mental health unit that Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Wednesday he was expanding.

The alliance, he said, bolsters gaps in the system.

The expanded mental health unit is another sign of the way Pinellas law enforcement is evolving since the Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice and police brutality started in May. County agencies no longer investigate their own officers in incidents where they use force. That is the job of a new multi-agency task force the sheriff announced in July. And St. Petersburg plans to roll out its own program to allow social services workers and paramedics to handle mental health issues and certain non-violent police calls instead of officers.

Related: St. Petersburg police erred before mentally ill man was killed, report says

The Sheriff’s Office will employ all members of the mental health unit. The two deputies currently in the unit will remain, and Gualtieri will solicit internal applicants for the remaining four positions. The six social worker positions will be hired from outside, at starting salaries of $45,800. The program will initially work between Park Boulevard to State Road 580, and, if successful, expand to the whole county.

Currently, the social workers are staffed through a contract with Directions for Living, a mental health services provider in Clearwater. Gualtieri said he will not renew the current contract when it ends on Sept. 30, citing staffing issues with the contractor.

Directions CEO and President April Lott said the staffing issues were related to the coronavirus pandemic. She said she was surprised when she found out last week that the sheriff wanted to end the contract.

“My assessment of the effectiveness of the mental health unit ... up until the COVID outbreak, was that it was an incredible collaborative," she said, "and quite frankly a model that could be replicated.”

Lott believes expanding the mental health unit is a good idea — but wishes the sheriff had considered including Directions for Living.

It’s important for law enforcement to partner with community-based mental health service providers, she said. Those organizations have expertise and institutional knowledge that law enforcement does not, she said, and a culture that revolves around mental health treatment as opposed to addressing crime and safety.

“I support and respect our sheriff," Lott said. But "I think the country, the nation, has spoken, that the idea of law enforcement becoming the mental health responder is not the direction that we should be going in.”

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