ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council on Thursday approved an $850,000 contract to launch a new program that will send social workers to handle certain noncriminal and nonviolent calls instead of police officers.
Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, which works in 40 Florida counties and is headquartered in Clearwater, will hire a program director and staff for St. Petersburg’s new Community Assistance Liaison program. The contract lasts nine months, enough to cover the program’s pilot period through September.
The St. Petersburg Police Department announced the program during last summer’s protests and amid national and local calls for police reform. Chief Anthony Holloway recently said he was already looking for ways to remove police from many 911 calls involving mental health crises, substance abuse, homelessness, neighbor disputes and similar issues.
Megan McGee, a special projects manager for the police department who led the search for a service provider, said the search committee’s decision to pick Gulf Coast was unanimous. The only other company to submit a proposal was Chrysalis Health of Fort Lauderdale.
Aside from Gulf Coast meeting the necessary criteria, McGee said, the selection committee liked that the nonprofit has worked in Pinellas County for decades and has myriad local connections with nonprofits handling issues like mental health, homelessness and truancy.
Council members said they were enthusiastic about the program, and approved the contract with a 7-0 vote (the eighth member, Amy Foster, was absent from Thursday’s meeting due to illness).
“I think everyone is really hoping this is a success,” said council member Robert Blackmon. “I hope it relieves some of the burden on our police officers.”
Social workers will initially respond to calls alongside officers, but by the 6-month mark pairs of social workers should be handling 80 percent of calls without officers, McGee said. She anticipates call volume from the most frequent callers for such non-violent, non-criminal emergencies to drop by half by the time the pilot ends next fall.
She said the police department is working on organizing events for the community to hear and ask questions about the program. Those could include limited in-person attendance. The city will evaluate the program’s trial period and then decide whether to continue and expand it.