Tampa police set to launch a mental health co-response program for answering crisis calls

The new team of crisis responders will consist of four mental health professionals hired by ACTS, four case managers, and four police officers.

Tampa police set to launch a mental health co-response program for answering crisis calls

Community activists in Tampa have been calling for changes in the conventional police response to mental health crises. And in its own way, the city is now heeding the call.

After more than a year of debate between Tampa city leaders and community activists about the role police officers should play in responding to mental health crisis calls, the Tampa Police Department (TPD) has partnered with the Agency for Community Treatment Services (ACTS) to launch a Behavioral Health Unit.

Proposed as a one-year pilot program, this new unit will have teams of licensed mental health professionals and police officers respond—together—to emergency calls in the community.

The Tampa Crisis Intervention Response Team, as it’s been dubbed, was unanimously approved by all members of the Tampa City Council last month, and could be in operation by the end of the summer.

The new team of crisis responders will consist of four mental health professionals hired by ACTS, four case managers, and four police officers. According to the TPD, officers chosen for this unit will have completed the department’s newly mandatory 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program—which is a type of training specifically designed to inform how law enforcement interacts with people who have known or suspected mental illness.

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, who’s set to retire this September, announced the department’s decision to make this 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training program mandatory for all officers and new hires back in 2019. According to the city, all Tampa police officers successfully completed this training last year.

But many mental health experts, as well as some law enforcement officials, agree that asking cops to handle mental health-related crisis situations isn’t ideal. St. Petersburg’s unarmed, non-police responders have already answered nearly 3,000 calls that would’ve gone to cops.

“For years, we’ve been sending cops to things that we shouldn’t be sending cops to,” Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner told Health Affairs. Skinner then pointed to his uniform. “When they show up, they look like this, and they’ve got guns and badges. We can soften that, but at the end of the day, people know we’re police officers and know a big part of our job is enforcement.”

Local law enforcement officials, including Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, have also acknowledged the conundrum of having law enforcement respond to calls about people in the throes of a mental health crisis.

“We’re in the mental health business,” Sheriff Gualtieri said recently about his own agency’s Behavioral Health Unit earlier this year. “Should we be? I don’t know. …But we need to be, and we’re going to be, until somebody else comes in and picks it up.”

Police departments across the U.S. say calls for mental health crises have increased over the years. In the worst of cases, this has led to devastating consequences for individuals, families, and their communities. 

More than one in five people fatally shot by police in the U.S. have a known or suspected mental illness, according to a Washington Post database that’s tracked fatal police shootings since 2015. 

In the 11 months since the murder of George Floyd last May and the conviction of the police officer who killed him in April of 2021 alone—more than 180 people with histories of mental illness were killed by police.

Last October, 26-year-old Dominique Mulkey—a young Black man fatally shot by two Tampa Police Department officers after stealing snacks from a Dollar General—was one of them. 

Developing Tampa’s crisis responder program

George Floyd’s death last May became the catalyst for one of the largest movements against racial injustice and police brutality in U.S. history. 

Across Tampa Bay, changing how local municipalities respond to crisis situations, including mental health emergencies, became one of several demands shared by individuals who were mobilized by last summer’s protests.

Crisis responder programs that dispatch first responders, either in conjunction with or without police, to mental health-related emergency calls have been around for decades

The Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, program run by the White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon is one of the nation’s oldest examples. In operation since 1989, the CAHOOTS program answers thousands of calls each year, utilizing a system that relies on trauma-informed de-escalation and harm reduction techniques.

Locally, Tampa’s behavioral healthcare provider, Gracepoint, has a small Mobile Crisis Team that’s been in operation for over 25 years—Florida’s first, a Gracepoint spokesperson told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

Today, more than a dozen cities in the U.S. have moved to minimize or completely eliminate the presence of police in responses to emergency mental health calls. 

Earlier this year, the city of St. Pete partnered with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services to launch the Community Assistance Life and Liaison (CALL) program, which has unarmed licensed clinical workers, who undergo additional field training, respond to nonviolent crisis situations that are triaged and dispatched through 911.

As of May, St. Pete’s CALL workers are responding to these emergency calls independently—without police. They’ve responded to nearly 3,000 calls since their launch. About one-third of these calls, they say, concerned mental health issues.

Yolanda Fernandez, who serves as Manager of the Community Awareness Division for St. Pete Police, recently commended the program for the services CALL workers are able to provide for the local community.

“The benefit to residents is that when they call 911 for a non-violent, noncriminal issue, they receive a trained expert to handle mental health crises, homelessness and quality of life issues,” Fernandez told CL last month. “Not only do they receive immediate help, but they also receive follow-up resources.” 

Meeting the demand: rising mental health struggles during COVID-19

Lieutenant Rojka, a 26-year veteran of the Tampa Police Department who will play a central role in managing the new Behavioral Health Unit, told CL  that officers responded to over 5,600 mental health-related calls in 2019. 

While the department is still sorting through its data for 2020, local mental health advocates say the demand for mental health services increased with COVID-19, which spurred a simultaneous public health, social, and economic crisis across the globe. 

“Over the last year and a half, we’ve seen that the [COVID-19] pandemic affected people in every demographic, in a myriad of ways,” Natasha Pierre, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Hillsborough, told CL.

Pierre, who herself has lived experience with mental illness, has been closely involved in the Hillsborough County Sheriff Offices’s Crisis Intervention Training program, which preceded the development of the HCSCO’s own Behavioral Resources Unit last year.

“From distress calls to elevated stress, anxiety, depression, people across the country, across the county, were hurting. And are still hurting,” Pierre said. “And although grief isn't a mental illness, I think what we saw was people who had, for a very long time, dealt with or masked the mental health challenges and illnesses that they were experiencing, [that] came to the surface.”

Like the city of St Pete, the TPD similarly sees its up-and-coming co-responder program not only as an opportunity to help people in crisis, but connect residents with mental health and social services in the local community, through its partnership with Gracepoint, DACCO, Northside Behavioral Health, BayCare Health, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, the University of South Florida, and ACTS.

“Our number one goal [with the Behavioral Health Unit] is to link people in crisis with the appropriate services,” Lieutenant Rojka told city council last month. 

Later, he added, “That's probably one of the number one challenges we have, is getting people connected in a timely fashion to the services that they need.”

‘Counselors not cops’ or ‘Counselors with cops’?

TPD’s Lieutenant Rojka told CL over email that his department consulted numerous law enforcement agencies in the process of developing Tampa’s new program, including agencies in Houston, San Diego, Dallas, as well as the community responder CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon.

CAHOOTS, which has served as the inspiration for a number of non-police, community-based response programs in recent years, is one that has been frequently referenced by Tampa activists, who’d hoped to see a similar program, not a co-response model, implemented here as well.

Restorative Justice Coalition—a small group of community activists that have been advocating for the creation of a CAHOOTS-like program in Tampa—told CL it was disappointed, but not surprised that the city decided to move ahead with a co-responder program, which they say “[ignores] the people, the evidence, and good sense when it comes to alternative programs.”

“A distrusted, violent, racist, transphobic department cannot be trusted to work along with mental health providers,” the Restorative Justice Coalition wrote. “This will not create trust but instead will actually create more distrust: both toward the police and the mental health professions. We remain committed and hopeful for a future where society is ran with care, not fear. Until then, we will continue to monitor the actions of our City leaders and they can expect to continue to hear from us until they are voted out or accountable in their work.”

Lieutenant Rojka did not clarify in his email what TPD discussed with CAHOOTS. When asked about why TPD decided to move forward with a co-response program, Rojka said this was a decision made in collaboration with their local behavioral health partners.

Collectively, Rojka says, they decided that a co-responder model would be most suitable to meet the city’s needs. “The independent response model is not widely utilized,” Rojka stated simply.

Yet, unarmed crisis responder teams have been popping up in a number of cities nationwide, including Olympia, Washington; Denver; San Francisco; Orlando; and other major metro areas. 

“Social workers face considerable distrust from communities due to the profession’s long history as a tool of social control. The last thing our field needs is more partnerships with police,” Master of Social Work student Elena Gormely wrote in response to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to move forward with a co-responder program last year.

When adequately funded, non-police responder programs can successfully divert crisis calls from police to social service and mental health professionals. Advocates of this approach say this can free up police resources to focus on serious crime and violence.

They can also be cost-saving for cities and taxpayers. The White Bird Clinic, which runs CAHOOTS, estimates that their program, which answers nearly 20% of the Eugene Police Department’s call volume, saves the city of Eugene $8.5 million in public safety spending annually.

What to expect with Tampa’s mental health co-response program

On the clinical side, the Tampa Crisis Intervention Response Team (TCIRT) will be headed by Dr. Kathy Thompson, a licensed mental health counselor and certified clinical trauma professional who was recently hired to be the police department’s Behavioral Health Coordinator.

The estimated budget for the one-year pilot program is $800,000, which the City of Tampa has confirmed will come from the city’s general fund. Lieutenant Rojka of TPD says the department has also applied for several grants.

After the TPD’s presentation for City Council last month, City Councilman Luis Viera—who, like many Democrats and Republicans alike, believes the implementation of policing reforms requires more, not less, monetary investment in police departments—said the city could consider using federal funds to support the program and its potential expansion.

Viera pointed out that the City of Tampa will have $80 million to spend over the next two years, thanks to the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. “The federal government has told us that we could use that money, in part, for public safety issues,” Viera said. “I think this is a great program that we should, you know, take a look at funding in a robust way.”

Across the bay, St. Pete has allocated $3.125 million over three years for its new Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program, using funds originally earmarked for the hiring of 25 new police officers

Between Eugene and Springfield, the CAHOOTS program in Oregon has an annual budget of about $2 million—and is currently seeking more, in order to expand their program, increase base pay for their crisis responders, and stabilize their program as is. 

According to the TPD, the Tampa Crisis Intervention Response Team could be ready by the end of the summer, with operational hours of Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to around 11PM—with the potential for expansion in the future.

Says Lieutenant Rojka, the crisis responder teams will go out in unmarked Tampa Police Department vehicles. Police responders will be armed, he says, the mental health professionals paired with them will not. A “more relaxed” uniform for officers assigned to this unit is “in the works,” Rojka says.

ACTS, the social service organization that’s hiring clinicians for the new responder team, is currently seeking applicants for one-year contracts. An estimated $304,000—or up to $76,000 per clinician—has been earmarked for ACTS clinicians hired for the one-year pilot program.

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About The Author

McKenna Schueler

McKenna Schueler is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Florida. She regularly writes about labor, politics, policing, and behavioral health. You can find her on Twitter at @SheCarriesOn and send news tips to [email protected].

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