Are social workers the future for 911 mental health calls? Pinellas is finding out.


PINELLAS COUNTY — Cheryl Gimenez drives a standard-issue Chevy Tahoe: Lights on high, pc mounted within the cab, plexiglass barrier between back and front seats, “Sheriff Pinellas County” emblazoned on the aspect. A pair of rubber geese — one styled as a cop, the opposite as a firefighter — sits on the dashboard.

The quirk is who’s within the passenger seat. Gimenez’s associate, Brittany DeFiore, is a social employee who joined the company’s psychological well being unit after Sheriff Bob Gualtieri determined to develop it final 12 months. Gimenez, who turned a deputy after 5 years as a 911 dispatcher, wears a uniform, a firearm and a physique digital camera. DeFiore, who mentioned she usually labored with folks with psychosis in her final job, wears plainclothes and a lanyard round her neck.

Most days, they crisscross a bit of north Pinellas County, carved out for the expanded unit’s pilot interval, as they reply to 911 calls associated to psychological well being or substance use, or knock on doorways to comply with up on instances deputies marked as psychological health-related.

Deputy Cheryl Gimenez collects psychological well being companies data pamphlets from her cruiser whereas speaking with Clearwater Cops exterior the house of an 11-year-old woman who reported feeling suicidal. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A name on this Tuesday was acquainted to each of them.

An 11-year-old woman had informed her therapist she felt suicidal, and the therapist phoned for assist.

Clearwater police had been already responding, however Gimenez and DeFiore wished to chop in. That they had helped the identical woman by a disaster final week — she hadn’t needed to be hospitalized. Gimenez had the therapist’s cellphone quantity. Additionally they had a wider set of instruments than the patrol officers, and in the event that they did must take the woman to the hospital, as she was requesting, she would a minimum of know the folks along with her.

Gimenez known as her boss, who was additionally within the space, to elucidate the scenario and why they’d intervene.

“She’s one in all ours,” Gimenez mentioned.

The psychological well being unit has existed in varied types for almost 5 years, however the expanded and overhauled model that launched earlier this 12 months coincides with modifications in cities and counties throughout the nation. In lots of locations, communities are reckoning with the customarily ineffective and typically lethal outcomes of utilizing legislation enforcement officers as first responders to psychological well being crises.

Brittany DeFiore, crisis response specialist, center, and deputy Cheryl Gimenez talk with the 11-year-old girl before taking her to an area hospital under the Baker Act.
Brittany DeFiore, disaster response specialist, middle, and deputy Cheryl Gimenez discuss with the 11-year-old woman earlier than taking her to an space hospital below the Baker Act. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In St. Petersburg, one other workforce established earlier this 12 months comes at related points from a distinct method: There, unarmed, civilian social staff have begun responding to some calls with out police.

The 2 groups share a core philosophy. Social staff and psychological well being professionals, outfitted with years of schooling and expertise, know tips on how to assist folks in disaster; legislation enforcement officers might get 40 hours of coaching on the topic, however their choices in apply usually boil right down to extremes: arrest, hospitalization or nothing in any respect.

The St. Petersburg workforce will get metropolis funding by the Police Division and initially labored alongside officers. Gualtieri, although, doesn’t envision a model of his workforce through which the social staff — who’re Sheriff’s Workplace workers — reply alone.

“We’re within the psychological well being enterprise,” Gualtieri mentioned. “Ought to we be? I don’t know. … However we must be, and we’re going to be, till any individual else is available in and picks it up.”

The dichotomy places Pinellas County in an intriguing place: In areas only a few miles aside, residents will be capable of see what occurs when the position of police in psychological well being crises is reformed, and what occurs after they’re taken out of the equation altogether.

“There’s solely a lot (legislation enforcement) can provide,” mentioned Travis Atchison, who runs the St. Petersburg effort. “I inform my workforce, you’re brokers of change.”

Separate methods

The final 12 months marked a turning level within the knotted story of policing and psychological well being. However within the late Nineteen Eighties, developments in American cities greater than 2,000 miles aside charted separate programs that might in the end result in this second.

In 1987, police fatally shot 27-year-old Joseph Dewayne Robinson exterior his mom’s home in Memphis, Tenn. Robinson had a historical past of psychological sickness and drug dependancy, and his mom informed 911 dispatchers that her son had been reducing himself and threatening others. Robinson’s demise was no outlier: Within the years previous it, newspapers later reported, Memphis police had killed a median of seven folks with psychological sicknesses yearly.

Within the aftermath of the killing, police, teachers and group organizers collaborated on a disaster intervention workforce, a gaggle of officers who aimed to cut back the division’s use of pressure and the speed at which it was jailing folks with psychological sicknesses.

Across the identical time, in 1989, the White Chicken Clinic in Eugene, Ore., launched a program known as Disaster Help Serving to Out on the Streets. In line with the clinic’s web site, this system was envisioned as a “group policing initiative,” and it additionally makes use of the time period “disaster intervention” to explain itself. Nevertheless it shirked police involvement, as an alternative sending medics and psychological well being professionals to 911 calls about suicide threats, substance abuse and interpersonal conflicts.

Travis Atchison, left, and Katelyn DiRaimo search for a juvenile reportedly having a mental health crisis at an apartment complex in St. Petersburg. Atchison is director of St. Petersburg’s Community Assistance and Life Liaison, or CALL, program.
Travis Atchison, left, and Katelyn DiRaimo seek for a juvenile reportedly having a psychological well being disaster at an condo advanced in St. Petersburg. Atchison is director of St. Petersburg’s Group Help and Life Liaison, or CALL, program. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Over the following 30 years, legislation enforcement businesses throughout the U.S. adopted the Memphis mannequin. A 2019 analysis evaluate discovered that the coaching improves officers’ satisfaction, reduces stigma round psychological sickness and will assist in diverting folks to psychiatric services fairly than jails.

The proof doesn’t present that officers with disaster intervention coaching use pressure any much less usually than these with out it, although.

The Remedy Advocacy Middle, a nonprofit that focuses on psychological sicknesses akin to bipolar dysfunction and schizophrenia, has estimated that folks with untreated severe psychological sicknesses are 16 instances extra prone to be killed by legislation enforcement in comparison with the final inhabitants, and that they’re 10 instances extra prone to wind up in jail or jail than a hospital. Final 12 months, it gave Florida’s involuntary psychological well being therapy legislation, the Baker Act, a “D” grade, one of many worst within the nation.

“Fifty years of failed psychological well being coverage on this nation has made legislation enforcement our de-facto psychological well being disaster response,” mentioned Jeffrey Melada, the middle’s communications director. “We’ve foisted this downside on them as a result of we’ve refused to deal with it as a society.”

Regardless of the proliferation of disaster intervention coaching and an elevated consciousness of how psychological well being and policing are tied collectively, Gualtieri mentioned, important coaching on the topic nonetheless isn’t baked into the career.

“What finally ends up occurring,” he mentioned in a current interview, “is that cops remedy the issue by eradicating the issue from the scenario.

“Folks both get arrested or they get Baker Acted. You shouldn’t be criminalizing psychological well being points. However once more, at 3 o’clock within the morning, while you don’t have anything, what do you do?”

Whereas legislation enforcement struggled to regulate to the challenges of psychological sickness, the disaster program in Oregon thrived exterior the nationwide highlight. In 2017, based on the White Chicken Clinic, this system saved town of Eugene an estimated $12 million and responded to almost one in all each 5 911 calls. Although critics have usually raised security issues round related applications, police had been known as as backup in simply 150 of the 24,000 calls this system answered in 2019.

Deputy Cheryl Gimenez talks with Maya Scott, 24, while providing information about local mental health resources.
Deputy Cheryl Gimenez talks with Maya Scott, 24, whereas offering details about native psychological well being sources. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Philip Yanos, a professor of psychology on the John Jay Faculty of Legal Justice, mentioned the successes and shortcomings of disaster intervention coaching present that it’s “the baseline minimal” that businesses ought to provide. Variations rising now have been slower to catch on, partially due to a scarcity of peer-reviewed analysis, he mentioned.

Issues have moved quick within the final 12 months, although, he mentioned. He traces the shift to the March 2020 demise of Daniel Prude in Rochester, N.Y.: Prude was apparently delirious when police responded to calls about him behaving erratically; he was handcuffed after they coated his head with a hood and pressed his face into the pavement, and he stopped respiratory minutes later. (A grand jury this 12 months declined to carry fees in opposition to the officers concerned.)

“For those who had been speaking to me this time final 12 months, we’d be speaking about (disaster intervention coaching) and co-response, and co-response would’ve appeared like an actual progressive method,” Yanos mentioned lately. “Now the local weather is favoring a non-police disaster response.”

In both case, he mentioned, cities and counties should proceed with out an abundance of proof, figuring out they’ll most likely should make changes as they go. Melada mentioned it’s unattainable to unilaterally deem one mannequin higher than one other, as a result of completely different communities want various things. Even the Oregon mannequin can’t be replicated precisely elsewhere, due to particular demographics, wants and psychological well being sources.

However “if persons are dying,” Yanos mentioned, “you don’t wait.”

A turning level

These deaths dominated the information cycles and social actions of 2020, in ways in which usually raised questions concerning the fundamentals of policing.

Psychological sickness didn’t play into the killings of George Floyd or Rayshard Brooks, however some folks puzzled: Ought to police have even responded in these instances — to a faux $20 invoice, to a person sleeping in his automobile? Calls to cut back and redirect police funding had been condemned by legislation enforcement leaders and unions, however there was a sliver of widespread floor: Activists wished disaster response choices that didn’t contain weapons or handcuffs, and officers knew they weren’t outfitted for psychological well being calls.

And the toll of lethal encounters continued, each nationally and in Tampa Bay.

In June 2020, Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a name a couple of Port Richey lady who was armed and suicidal. The girl, Bonnie Figueroa-Ortiz, slipped away from her residence whereas deputies had been exterior. When deputies discovered her the following morning, she ran, holding a gun, and shortly encountered one other deputy, who fatally shot her. Prosecutors declined to file fees, and a state investigation cleared him of wrongdoing.

And in August that 12 months, a St. Petersburg officer fatally shot 55-year-old Jeffrey Haarsma exterior his residence on Fourth Road N. Police had encountered Haarsma dozens of instances and had documented his psychological well being struggles. When an officer tried to detain him throughout a petty theft investigation, Haarsma started choking her, and he or she shot him. A subsequent investigation discovered that the taking pictures was justified, however that officers had erred in a number of methods main as much as the incident, together with failing to think about Haarsma’s historical past of psychological sickness.

Mark O’Neal, 59, gets a visit from DiRaimo and Atchison. They were organizing a mental health evaluation for O’Neal, who suffers from depression.
Mark O’Neal, 59, will get a go to from DiRaimo and Atchison. They had been organizing a psychological well being analysis for O’Neal, who suffers from melancholy. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Protest marchers in St. Petersburg had by then been demonstrating for weeks, as a part of the nationwide rebellion that adopted the homicide of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. On July 3, St. Pete protesters launched a listing of calls for. Amongst them: Town ought to create groups, staffed by non-police specialists, to answer crises involving psychological well being, drug overdoses and different points.

Police Chief Anthony Holloway introduced six days later that town would ship social staff, as an alternative of police, to some calls. “Our residents are asking for change,” he mentioned. Holloway later denied, although, that protesters’ calls for had prompted the creation of what would turn into St. Petersburg’s Group Help and Life Liaison, or CALL, program.

Jabaar Edmond, a group organizer lively within the protest marches, mentioned he didn’t want metropolis officers to attach the group help workforce to the marches — the victory was that the workforce existed in any respect.

“It doesn’t should be due to our marching,” he mentioned. “It doesn’t should be as a result of somebody dies. It doesn’t should be as a result of, you realize, the Instances is doing a narrative. Let or not it’s for no matter cause.”

The St. Petersburg Metropolis Council quickly agreed to spend $850,000 of its 2020-21 finances on this system. In January, it authorized a contract with Clearwater-based Gulf Coast Jewish Household and Group Providers, which employed the workforce led by Atchison. It consists of three medical supervisors and a dozen “navigators,” who would reply calls starting from psychological well being crises to homelessness, truancy or neighbor disputes — all of which, they discovered, had been usually underpinned by psychological well being points.

Navigators responded to calls alongside officers within the first weeks after the workforce’s February launch. In these early days, Atchison mentioned, he discovered it useful to work with officers who knew the territory and, in some instances, the high-volume callers, who may make 20 calls to 911 in a brief interval.

Atchison has a wide-ranging counseling background; he does little one remedy on the aspect and is pursuing a doctorate. His navigator on a current day within the area, Katelyn DiRaimo, graduated faculty final 12 months with a felony justice diploma and labored at a home violence shelter earlier than becoming a member of Atchison’s workforce. They put on T-shirts or polos, and khakis.

Atchison, at left, initially found it helpful to work with officers who knew the territory. Now, his team handles calls alone.
Atchison, at left, initially discovered it useful to work with officers who knew the territory. Now, his workforce handles calls alone. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Atchison drives a black Toyota Camry that has, by his account, seen greater than you care to know. Forwards and backwards throughout St. Petersburg, he bumps George Jones and old-school hip, rolling the home windows right down to puff on Marlboro Blacks. Few would mistake them for legislation enforcement.

Nonetheless, Atchison mentioned, it’s key to indicate folks that his workforce has completely different instruments and targets than police. A lot of these they encounter anticipate to be hospitalized, and even arrested.

Atchison desires to keep away from these experiences, which might create extra trauma, he mentioned. He desires folks to take care of company over their lives, even after they need assistance.

He mentioned he’s fast to say: “I’m right here to listen to you out.”

‘Give folks their energy again’

What occurred regionally additionally was occurring throughout the nation. Packages emerged in Denver and Portland, Oakland and San Francisco and Los Angeles. Nashville’s police division began a co-response program. Officers in Hartford, Conn., introduced a plan for a civilian disaster response workforce.

In Pinellas County, Gualtieri’s effort coincided with the nationwide wave, however in contrast to the modifications in lots of locations, the sheriff was overhauling an present unit fairly than creating a brand new one.

Gualtieri realized round 2013, he mentioned, that “the people who find themselves known as upon essentially the most to cope with folks in disaster and cope with folks with psychological well being points are these which might be least certified to cope with them — and that’s legislation enforcement.”

In 2016, his workplace launched an early iteration of the psychological well being unit. Nevertheless it had bother discovering its footing: A pilot within the Lealman space, the place a four-person unit tried to answer calls and do follow-ups, yielded “extra error than trial,” Gualtieri mentioned. A later model of the workforce adopted up on calls that responding deputies marked as psychological health-related. However the course of was inconsistent, Gualtieri mentioned, and the employees turned over too usually.

He determined final 12 months that the workforce must reply to calls and conduct follow-ups, but additionally act as a hub: to attach shoppers and their households to completely different healthcare suppliers whereas additionally sharing data between suppliers.

“Now we will coordinate with the companies, the company they’re seeing and say, ‘Pay attention, simply final night time this consumer was having delusions of x, y and z, however they didn’t meet Baker Act standards,” mentioned Sgt. Joleen Bowman, who oversees the unit. “Properly, now they’ve that data … to assist with their therapy plan and transfer ahead.”

From left: crisis response specialist Brittany DeFiore, deputy Cheryl Gimenez, Sgt. Joleen Bowman and clinical supervisor Amanda Sciarrotta-Farell strategize outside a home in a Clearwater neighborhood. They were looking for a woman who was recently taken to an area hospital using the Baker Act.
From left: disaster response specialist Brittany DeFiore, deputy Cheryl Gimenez, Sgt. Joleen Bowman and medical supervisor Amanda Sciarrotta-Farell strategize exterior a house in a Clearwater neighborhood. They had been searching for a girl who was lately taken to an space hospital utilizing the Baker Act. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The psychological well being unit consists of six deputies, two Clearwater officers and eight disaster response specialists, plus Bowman and a medical supervisor. They work throughout a bit of north Pinellas County that features a part of Clearwater and spans State Street 580 to Bellair Street.

“Twenty-seven years in the past, you had psychological well being on the market, it was: You took the report, you made an arrest, or possibly you handed them paperwork — right here’s a referral, better of luck,” mentioned Maj. Dennis Komar, who oversees the Sheriff’s Workplace’s patrol operations bureau. “Instances have modified.”

To Gimenez, the psychological well being unit deputy, a extra nuanced method to psychological well being points was a pure a part of the job. Earlier than turning into a deputy, she spent 12 hours a day as a dispatcher, maintaining calm whereas guiding callers by their most panicked moments.

The talents she discovered in that job — to be affected person, to pay attention rigorously to discern what folks actually need — have served her nicely in her present position, she mentioned, the place she goals to make use of handcuffs and the Baker Act as little as doable.

“You need to give folks their energy again,” she mentioned.

What they should stay

In February, the primary full month for the expanded psychological well being unit, groups encountered 161 folks, most frequently throughout welfare checks or calls about ”emotional misery.” They used the Baker Act 33 instances and tallied 53 instances through which they “diverted” folks away from it. Greater than 70 agreed to be linked to psychological well being companies. The Sheriff’s Workplace didn’t provide information for current months, however Gualtieri mentioned the numbers he’d seen for March and April had been related.

Gualtieri received’t know sufficient to decide on the unit’s future till a minimum of the six-month mark, he mentioned.

“However I like what I’m seeing,” he mentioned. “I believe it’s making a distinction. I do know we’re making higher choices.”

From its launch date on Feb. 2 by Could 23, the St. Petersburg disaster workforce tallied greater than 1,500 contacts. Extra than 300 of these had been referrals from officers who encountered folks they thought would profit from the workforce’s experience, based on the St. Petersburg Police Division, which tracks the information.

Greater than half of the calls they responded to concerned psychological well being issues or suicide threats; a couple of quarter had been about panhandlers, and the remaining had been a combination of neighbor disputes, youth points and substance abuse. None turned violent.

The St. Petersburg workforce’s pilot interval ends with town’s fiscal 12 months on the finish of September, however Holloway mentioned in a discussion board earlier this month that he plans to ask for extra funding.

“We’re simply ready now for the Metropolis Council approval to proceed, possibly multi-year,” he mentioned. “We need to transfer ahead with this program.”

Ought to this system maintain going, the folks getting the workforce’s companies a 12 months from now could also be a very completely different group than immediately’s shoppers. The workforce may go with folks over a span of two days to 2 months, Atchison mentioned, however they received’t turn into everlasting case managers. Their aim is to behave as a bridge to a extra steady place, the place somebody has remedy, a therapist, common meals and housing — what they should stay.

“We need to restore people again to their stage of functioning previous to disaster,” Atchison mentioned one current morning, as he and DiRaimo headed to a follow-up go to with a person who had lately been examined below the Baker Act.

The times after persons are launched from the hospital will be essentially the most difficult. They might have a contemporary analysis and prescription however usually don’t have any extra help than earlier than. That may go away them weak or overwhelmed, Atchison famous.

“Hell,” he added, “99 p.c of the time, discharge paperwork’s left within the automobile.”

He and DiRaimo discovered 44-year-old Jason Sharp sitting in a camp chair exterior his second-floor condo. DiRaimo climbed the steps and crouched in entrance of him, and so they shortly settled into a simple dialog.

DiRaimo, left, talks with Jason Sharp, 44, outside his apartment in St. Petersburg while following up on Sharp’s well-being after he was recently hospitalized under the Baker Act.
DiRaimo, left, talks with Jason Sharp, 44, exterior his condo in St. Petersburg whereas following up on Sharp’s well-being after he was lately hospitalized below the Baker Act. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Are you feeling higher than you had been after I noticed you final time?” she requested.

“Slightly bit,” he mentioned.

He talked about his monetary struggles — he’d labored in landscaping, he mentioned, however his driver’s license was suspended, and it was arduous to maintain a job with out one. DiRaimo mentioned she’d researched his neighborhood and located a church and a library close by, and he or she puzzled if he’d discover both useful. If he might discover a job however wanted a experience, she’d assist with that, too.

Sharp mentioned he’d been subjected to the Baker Act earlier than, a few years earlier, and although he was launched with a stack of cellphone numbers for group sources, his melancholy made the duty of calling them overwhelming.

He checked out DiRaimo, a slight smile hovering on his face. He appeared shocked, or relieved.

“I actually thought I’d by no means see you guys once more,” he mentioned.


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