Transforming policing in St. Petersburg

Sandra Braham, Ed. D, president & CEO of Gulf Coast JFCS; SPPD Police Chief Anthony Holloway; SPPD Special Projects Manager Megan McGee, MPA; JFCS Chief Operating Officer Terri Balliet, M.A

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Petersburg Police Department held a community conversation to discuss the aims of its new Community Assistance Life Liaison (CALL) program on Jan. 22. The event was held virtually with Carl Lavender, chief equity officer, Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, serving as moderator.

Police Chief Anthony Holloway, always seeking to improve policing in the city, discussed how the department strived to be more innovative. They want to take more of a strategic approach, he said, and officers no longer want to “arrest their way out of a problem” but figure out solutions to those problems.

“We’re not going to fish anymore with a fishing net,” he explained, “we’re going to fish with a fishing pole…because people have different issues and different problems.”

The department continues its Park, Walk and Talk initiative, where officers get out of their cars and talk to residents one hour a week, though it had to be scaled back last year due to COVID-19. Under the CALL program, the officers will be talking with people in the community for two hours a week.

The aim is to build and strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and citizens. As a result, the department has gone from receiving just over 700 tips on crime in 2004 to over 4,600 tips this past year. With the PATH (Police Assisting the Homeless) unit, the department addresses homelessness and related social issues.

Another initiative was done in partnership with St. Anthony’s Hospital, where a nurse practitioner rode along with officers to address any medical needs of individuals that may be required on the street. Bayfront Health St. Petersburg is now also willing to assign a nurse or nurse practitioner as well, Holloway said. And the Cohort of Champions program, which is a multi-faceted one-year training initiative for young Black men, aims to change the trajectory for at-risk youth.

The city has seen a reduction in crime over the past eight years, the chief said, and it is the lowest it’s been in 20 years. After years of debate, the body cam program is up and running. In addition to the officers’ crisis intervention training, the department decided to bring in professionals to deal with non-criminal situations on the street, such as individuals with mental illness.

Special Projects Manager Megan McGee, MPA, from the St. Petersburg Police Department, said that law enforcement’s scope had expanded dramatically over the years.

“Police have become the first responders for mental health, substance abuse, homelessness,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that way. We had a desire to identify and triage calls that involve social issues and offer services, not a law enforcement response.”

Safety is paramount, McGee said, and an officer will always be dispatched to violent situations. The SPPD has partnered with Gulf Coast JFCS, which can leverage its resources with other providers along with their continuum of care. This includes mental health services, substance abuse intervention, emergency family support with a food pantry, child welfare and family intervention services and elder services, among others.

Their staff will be trained in verbal de-escalation, trauma-informed care, recognizing implicit bias, and solution-focused assessments.

“When the program is fully staffed, they will work in pairs and provide 14-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week coverage,” she said.

The timeline will move in phases, with the first phase kicking off this month as CALL will be embedded within the PATH unit and provide a coordinated response to various identified call types. The second phase is call responding, where CALL would lead the response, and an officer would be onsite or in the vicinity as needed. In phase three, CALL responds directly to the identified call types.

“The start date of phase two and the start date of phase three depend on several factors, including the mutual agreement of the police department and Gulf Coast, and where we’re at with staffing levels,” McGee noted.

CALL will be evaluated to reduce repeat calls for service and reduce law enforcement responding to the CALL-eligible calls. In six months, the program hopes to see a 50 percent reduction in calls directly to the police department for those identified as the highest utilizers of service. The message to the citizens is that law enforcement can focus on public safety, reducing crime and keeping our neighborhoods safe.

“We are investing in a program that allows trained professionals to address quality of life issues,” McGee said, “and move individuals out of crisis into longer-term assistance and care.”

JFCS Chief Operating Officer Terri Balliet, M.A., said that Gulf Coast had leveraged two of its staff leaders to oversee the CALL program. There will be a CALL program director, three clinical shift supervisors and 12 navigators who will work in a rotating shift schedule.

“These will be considered our ‘boots on the ground,'” she said, adding that a licensed clinician will always be available for each shift.

The primary goal for CALL is for responders to first assess the situation and stabilize the individuals. Team members will be appropriately trained to bring a strength-based, trauma-informed and culturally sensitive approach to all situations, Balliet explained.

“In every situation, we always want to de-escalate,” she said. “We never want to provoke trauma or re-traumatize one of our clients.”

Since the program is a pilot initiative, Sandra Braham, Ed. D, president & CEO of Gulf Coast JFCS stated that CALL would be measured by achievement of goals, and there are still gaps to fill.

“We’re looking for staff who have the right heart, who have a commitment and passion for the work at hand,” she said.

The program seeks to see a successful reduction in police services and response to nonviolent human service needs, Braham pointed out, which translates directly into dollars saved by the SPPD and manpower efficiencies.

The next community conversation is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 5:30 p.m. Click here to register.

For questions, email Terri. Balliet@gcjfcs.org or Megan.McGee@stpete.org.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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