St. Petersburg City Council approves mental health unit budget increase

The unit, which sends social workers to some calls instead of police, will be renewed for another three years.
Social workers with a St. Petersburg Police Department unit that responds to nonviolent calls respond to a call earlier this year.
Social workers with a St. Petersburg Police Department unit that responds to nonviolent calls respond to a call earlier this year. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 3|Updated Aug. 3

The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday approved a three-year renewal of the police department’s mental health unit along with a $400,000 increase in its annual budget.

In 2021, the St. Petersburg Police Department partnered with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services Inc. to start the unit, which sends social workers to nonviolent calls in which no crime has been committed. Those calls include mental health crises, truancy, overdoses and some neighborhood disputes.

The unit this year cost about $1.3 million — about 1% of the police department’s $133 million budget.

The agency on Thursday asked for an increase of the unit’s annual budget to about $1.7 million. The request was passed unanimously by the seven council members at the meeting. Council member Lisset Hanewicz was not present.

The program currently runs from 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, and employs 21 staff members. Agency leaders plan to use the increased funding to expand their hours to 2 a.m., hire three more staff members and get a new office.

In the first few months of the program, social workers were paired with police. Now, they respond to most calls without a law enforcement presence, a factor that makes their approach unique both in Tampa Bay and nationwide.

Megan McGee, an assistant director with the police department, told City Council that 93% of the unit’s responses result in a diversion from a crisis unit, police response or hospitalization. She recalled when she and police Chief Anthony Holloway first asked City Councilfor funding for the unit in 2021.

“We wanted to provide a better behavioral response to those in need,” she said. “So (the unit) has been changing lives through the city of St. Petersburg for 912 days because of your support.”

During the meeting, City Council member Ed Montanari said the unit was not created to take away funding from the police, but rather as an additional resource to help the agency.

“This is a tool that we have to allow (unit) navigators to deal with noncriminal calls and free up our police officers to concentrate on criminal calls,” he said.

St. Petersburg council member Brother John Muhammad recalled how local protesters demanded a mental health response team after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. He said he wanted to learn more about how the program could decrease racial disparities in follow-ups with clients, but he said he appreciates the unit’s efforts.

“This is an example of how local government and our police force is responding to the things that are coming up from the community,” he said. “So I want to applaud you all.”