Megan McGee and Tianna Audet are on the front lines of a new way of policing and how law enforcement agencies respond to behavioral and mental health calls.
They are leading that effort on the streets of St. Petersburg.
McGee is special projects manager and Audet is program manager for the Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) initiative for the St. Petersburg Police Department. CALL has teams of specialists and social workers who respond to some mental and behavioral calls, rather than having police officers as the primary responders.
McGee said the program is making a difference by allowing police officers to focus on other calls (especially for violent crimes) and for residents in need of assistance.
“I think we are really giving the citizens what they need,” she said.
The program was born in the summer of 2020, after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked racial justice protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, and civil unrest in some U.S. cities. The rallies and strife also propelled calls for police reforms and finding new ways to respond to calls for service and engage communities and households in need.
The St. Petersburg Police Department issued a request for proposals in October 2020 for the effort and selected Gulf Coast JFCS, a Clearwater-based behavioral health firm. In February 2021, McGee said the city launched an $850,000 pilot project for the idea of having social workers and mental health crisis specialists respond to calls, rather than uniformed officers.
The initial phases had CALL staffers embedded in an SPPD unit that assists homeless persons. A significant number of unsheltered and transient persons deal with mental health challenges. St. Petersburg and Pinellas County had more than 7,300 individuals dealing with homelessness in 2020, according to an analysis of population counts by the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas County. 4,255 public school students dealt with homelessness during the 2019-2020 school year, according to Pinellas County Public Schools.
Audet said a number of requests for service that CALL receives entail disputes involving students, such as truancy and arguments with parents.
“We get a lot of calls for disorderly juveniles, [such as] ‘My child won’t go to school’. We’re able to go and relieve officers [of those calls] and provide them services.”
In April 2021, the CALL program was staffed up and began operating on a seven-day a week schedule.
Audet said her group has 13 navigators who work in teams. The CALL effort has 17 total staffers.
The navigators are currently on duty from 8 a.m. to midnight.
“They are boots on the ground, so to speak,” McGee said. The pair would like to see that expanded to more 24/7 coverage.
Last August, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to extend Gulf Coast’s CALL contract through September 2023. The program has an annual budget of $1.27 million.
Overcoming doubts: “Defund” the Police?
The effort has had to overcome perceptions from the public and from within law enforcement on whether mental health staffers and social workers should be responding to 911 calls.
“I think initially officers were very hesitant and skeptical of our mission. ‘Someone is going to get hurt.’ That was the big thing,” said Audet, who spearheaded behavioral health efforts with the Largo police before joining SPPD. “Social workers have been going into homes for years.”
McGee and Audet both said CALL members focus on nonviolent incidents involving mental health situations and that frees up rank-and-file officers to handle calls about violent crimes and property offenses.
That dynamic has helped build internal confidence in the work.
They also said there have been no injuries and violent incidents involving CALL responses to incidents. And, both have seen more referrals from SPPD officers for CALL services.
On average, the SPPD effort responds to 208 “live calls” on a monthly basis along with 118 follow-up calls and between 60 and 80 referrals from officers.
The program has responded to more than 5,800 calls and has received more than 1,000 referrals from officers.
Alternatives to 911 Calls and Squad Cars
Audet said navigators can help provide those in need with assistance and referrals for behavioral and mental health and addiction services. Families and individuals are also given contact information so they can avoid having to call 911 in the future
“It diverts calls from 911,” McGee said, which can help ease the strain on dispatchers.
CALL responds to 95% of the calls without police officers.
Audet said that can be advantageous in certain situations where communities, families, or individuals may not trust uniformed officers and patrol cars.
“Instead of calling 911, they can call us directly,” said Audet, who said navigators are dressed in street clothes rather than uniforms and show up in private vehicles rather than squad cars.
Navigators do not have arrest powers and can exit a toxic situation and call in officers as needed, Audet said.
The CALL efforts, which also helps to build trust between police and communities and households with negative views of law enforcement, has also received a $50,000 grant from the Tampa Bay Lightning and $20,000 from the Tampa Bay Rays.
“We’ve applied for quite a bit of grant funding,” Audet said.
McGee wants to expand the scope of the program to help the department send officers to the most pressing public safety needs.
“We want to do more than just mental health. Non-criminal, non-violent incidents that are often not police matters such as family situations,” she said. “It’s really unnecessary to have contact with the criminal justice system on things that involve family dynamics or truancy.”
The SPPD program was launched as there were calls from some progressives to reduce or divert police funding to community development and mental health efforts. It also comes as cities, across the country, deal with some spikes in violent crime and a surge in overdose deaths related to fentanyl.
Audet said she’ s not aware of other police departments where social workers or crisis response teams are responding to calls on their own – and that the St. Petersburg model is drawing attention.
“I don’t know of any other agencies in the country that are doing solo responses,” she said. “A lot of people are just really interested in why we chose this model.”