After initial delays, St. Pete police's social worker response team could start as early as February

City Council could formally approve the committee’s vendor pick in January, and it could begin four weeks later.

click to enlarge St. Petersburg police officers at a Feeding Tampa Bay event in September 2020. - StPetePD/Twitter
St. Petersburg police officers at a Feeding Tampa Bay event in September 2020.

As the new year approaches, St. Petersburg residents now have more answers about how a new Community Assistance Liaison (CAL) program is shaping up.

In July, the city of St. Petersburg and the St. Pete Police Department (SPPD) announced plans to develop the CAL program—which would operate as a division within the city police department—to respond to nonviolent emergency calls within city limits. The CAL program, which resembles similar programs across the country, will have licensed mental health workers respond to nonviolent 911 calls, including calls concerning mental health, suicide crises, truancy, drug overdoses, homeless populations, and neighborhood disputes. 

According to the SPPD, officers responded to about 12,700 nonviolent calls in 2019. The July announcement from both Mayor Kriseman and St. Pete Police Chief Holloway came during a heated season of Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the city’s police department.

After months of waiting for concrete developments to St. Pete’s new CAL program, a committee of St. Pete first responders and city leaders met last Thursday, Dec. 3, to share their recommendation for which organization should operate the new program.

Their pick: Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, a nonreligious agency based in Tampa Bay that provides a range of community welfare and health services. According to WMNF, Chrysalis Health was also considered in the selection process to operate the new program. However, Gulf Coast’s concrete plan to handle these calls and their timeline offered greater appeal to the committee.

“Gulf Coast presented a very detailed implementation plan and call response framework,” Megan McGree, the SPPD’s Special Projects Manager told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay in an emailed statement. “Gulf Coast has a long history in Tampa Bay, has significant experience with providing direct services to people out in the community, and has an extensive continuum of care that creates many opportunities for moving individuals out of crisis into longer-term help.”

Gulf Coast told the committee that it would have the capacity to provide 24-hour service for the city, year-round. This would be a step up from the original plan to have the program’s operating hours between 6 a.m.-2 a.m.

The new crisis response program is being paid for using money initially set aside as a match to a federal grant that required SPPD to hire a set number of new officers.

In July, SPPD Public Information Officer Yolanda Fernandez told CL that the department was approved for a $3,125,000 million federal grant to hire new officers. A condition of that grant was that the city would match the funds

“The police department is going to lose those funds with the creation of the CAL team, but the City of St. Pete had earmarked $3.8 million to match the federal grant—that money will now pay for this new service," Fernandez said at the time.

The CAL team was initially expected to begin by Oct. 1. Back in September, activists who’d been pushing for a reduced police budget shared concerns with CL when it appeared the department wasn’t on track with its original timeline. And it wasn't.

McGee added that the project has “evolved since its conception,” noting that some information—such as the original timeline, presumably—from initial news releases is no longer relevant.

According to the committee, the CAL program will be rolled out in phases early next year. The first phase will feature an embedded approach where social workers will co-respond to eligible nonviolent calls with police. This differs from programs like CAHOOTS, a mobile crisis intervention program in Oregon which sends teams of crisis workers and medics to respond to nonviolent 911 calls.

“I am concerned about the initial rollout, including the presence of officers,” Richie Floyd, an organizer with the Pinellas Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and a 2021 candidate for St. Pete City Council, told CL. “Officers have the power to arrest, jail, and even kill at times, and their presence can evoke a negative emotional response. And that could spell disaster for someone undergoing a crisis. A situation escalating out of control possibly due to the presence of a police officer during this initial phase could be damaging to the future of the program.”

Floyd noted, however, that he was glad to see that the city had made progress on the program’s rollout. “I'm pleased to see the program move forward, and I expect the city to eventually get to the program they have promised.”

McGee, who is serving as project manager for the CAL contract, has stressed that the embedded approach isn’t permanent.

“The embedded phase is the beginning of a multi-phase implementation to ultimately transition to an independent response for eligible nonviolent and noncriminal calls,” McGee told CL. “The duration of the embedded phase is based on various factors including the mutual agreement of Gulf Coast and SPPD.”

St. Petersburg is also looking to expand the types of services offered through the program. According to McGee, licensed mental health workers within the CAL division will be making proactive contacts with the highest utilizers of the emergency services to provide wraparound services and follow-up. This may serve to address any unmet needs of community members as they relate to their use of emergency crisis services. “We have an excellent opportunity to evolve and grow this program to best meet the needs of St. Pete,” McGee added.

St. Pete City Council is expected to formally approve the committee’s pick in January. If approved, Gulf Coast told the committee they’d be ready to roll out the program within four weeks of approval, and are open to hosting community forums to answer questions from community members.

UPDATED: 12/16/20 4 p.m. Updated to clarify how the CAL team is being funded.

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