NEW PORT RICHEY — The Pasco County Sheriff's Office announced Monday it will create a new unit of deputies and case workers dedicated to the mental health needs of the county.
"This is definitely the wave of the future," Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said at a news conference.
The Mental Health and Threat Assessment Team plans to interact directly with people who are experiencing mental health crises with emphasis on those who have been repeatedly detained under the Baker Act. Lt. Toni Roach, who will lead the new unit, has traveled to Houston, Salt Lake City and Arlington, Va., to see how law enforcement agencies are managing the intersection of mental health and policing across the country.
Deputies in Pasco County responded last year to nearly 20,000 calls related to mental health issues. The Sheriff's Office estimates that in 2018 about 503 people have been detained under the Baker Act more than once.
Nocco said he hopes members of the unit will form relationships with people experiencing mental illness so they can anticipate their needs rather than just respond when they are in distress. The team will also connect them with local partners who provide care, like BayCare Behavioral Health and Novus Detox.
The unit will cost $1.45 million per year and is set to start in October. It will consist of a lieutenant, a sergeant, a social worker, two case managers and six deputies.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has a similar unit, started in 2016. A team of social workers and deputies responds to calls of people in emotional distress, said Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Spencer Gross. The unit also checks back in with people it interacts with often to connect them with behavioral health services.
Its goal is to reduce the number of people deputies detain under the Baker Act, Gross said.
In Hillsborough County, the Sheriff's Office has no mental health unit but last week announced a new policy requiring all its deputies to undergo 40 hours of training through the office's Crisis Intervention Training program.
The program is designed to inform officers how to calm someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis, sheriff's office spokeswoman Amanda Granit said.
Nocco said he hopes Pasco County can some day create a mental health emergency room through proceeds from a nationwide lawsuit against opioid distributors and manufacturers. Pasco joined the suit last year.
People know where to go when they break their arm, Nocco said, but those facing emotional distress only know to call 911.
"We need places where people understand, 'This is where I go if I have a mental health crisis.'"
Contact Sarah Verschoor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SarahVerschoor