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Full Circle Exclusive: Changing how the police protect and serve the community

Exclusive look at SPPD new CALL program
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Posted at 4:55 PM, May 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-13 18:44:38-04

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — On the fourth floor of the St. Petersburg Police Department's parking garage, more than a dozen people in a different kind of uniform were waiting for their day to start.

The team of social workers and mental health experts had on their new grey polo shirts with the letters "CALL" embroidered on the chest. It stands for Community Assistance and Life Liaison. CALL is a pilot program that makes sweeping changes to how police will protect and serve the community. Announced in July of 2020, the program finally got underway in February of this year following some delays.

"I'm a licensed clinical social worker, and I have my master's certification in addiction prevention," Travis Atchison said. Atchison is the Program Director for CALL. It is a new division within the police department but operated by Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.

Atchison says mental health experts called "navigators" will now be responding to non-violent 911 calls that include; disorderly intoxication, drug overdose, intoxicated person, mental health crisis, suicide crisis, mental health transport, disorderly juvenile/truancy, panhandling, homeless complaints, neighborhood disputes, or similar issues.

Atchison tells ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska, not only do they help take a heavy burden off of police to respond to more violent calls, they give people resources to get better.

"They help identify community resources and respond to live calls, so as a navigator, their job is to be very aware of the resources in the community mental health concerns, substance abuse issues local resources like shelters food pantries things like that," Atchison said.

A GUN AND A BADGE

Atchison said police officers receive some training in de-escalation and helping someone through a mental health crisis. But, just like he isn't trained to respond to violent calls, police don't have the type of schooling and degrees to have the deep understanding of the medications, emotions, and mental illness some people suffer.

"The badge definitely presents a heightened state for an individual," Atchison said. "They might have had prior poor experiences. They may have been Baker Acted, arrested, so there is that inner trauma associated with the law enforcement sometimes, not all the time. When it comes to our background, for example, I'm a licensed clinician in the state of Florida. I've displayed that ability to engage in high levels of mental health concerns. I have a deep understanding of mental health diagnosis, medication needs, things of that nature so that I can help better facilitate these conversations and establish that rapport in a more effective way."

The program will roll out in phases. Today, navigators are embedded with officers in the Police Assisting the Homeless unit (PATH). Atchison said the benefits are twofold. His navigators will learn safety tips in the field from the officer they are assigned that day, and the officers will be able to watch a mental health expert work in real-time to calm down a situation.

"There is a lot of mental health involving the homeless as well, so we build rapports and relationships with local community organizations," Sgt. Ryan Hilsdon said. Hilsdon's been with the PATH unit since they launched in 2019. The main focus of his unit is to help get the homeless resources and shelter. Hilsdon says mental illness isn't a problem you can arrest your way out of.

"I can go and take someone to jail. They might sit in the jail for two or three days, but they are back at the same spot two or three days later," Hilsdon said. "It's like a never-ending revolving door. What we are trying to do is cut that so these people are getting the help that they need."

"When you are holding a gun, and you got a taser and a badge, and you are an authority figure, and someone's freaking out, it's a little hard to even breakthrough just because of what you are wearing? Paluska asked.

"Correct," Hilsdon said. "I definitely think it gives a better aspect and better image when these civilian mental health professionals are coming out rather than the police department. We've had people call 20 to 30 times in a day calling 911 calling our communications center, so now that we are able to do referrals and give them other means of contacting their people or their assigned navigator. It's freeing up the 911 system. It's lessening the burden on police department officers going out to deal with these calls that are constant, constant, constant."

FREQUENT 911 USERS

According to statistics provided to ABC Action News by St. Pete PD, mental health calls increased from 2019 to 2020.

"As an example, in 2019 to current, there were 113 mental person-related calls to a single address; this is exactly the type of situation that the CALL model was designed to assist with," Megan McGree, the Police Special Projects Manager, said. "CALL is connecting with high need/high utilizers, two individuals, in particular, have been repeatedly Baker Acted 19 and 17 times, respectively, from 2019 to current."

In 2019, the Police Department responded to approximately 12,700 non-violent calls for service of a total of 259,800 calls.

MENTAL HEALTH CALLS TURNING VIOLENT

Navigators will not respond to mental health calls where a person or area is flagged for officer safety concerns. Police will continue to respond to life-threatening or criminal calls for service. But, experts tell me mental health calls can turn violent fast.

According to a 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, "people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement."

The authors concluded that reducing encounters between on-duty law enforcement and individuals with the most severe psychiatric diseases may represent the single most immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States.

On Aug. 7, 2020, St. Pete police added to that statistic.

Jeffrey Haarsma, 55, a man with a history of mental illness, was shot and killed by a St. Petersburg Police officer.

The officer-involved shooting was the first one handled by a newly formed task force to make policing more transparent. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office leads the task force. For Haarsma's shooting, the Clearwater Police Department and Pinellas Park Police Department assisted.

The 16-page report concluded the officers made several mistakes the night Haarsma was killed.

Police were called to the French Quarter North Condos on Fourth Street after Chief Anthony Holloway says his officers responded to a call about a man who stole a neighbor's outdoor furniture, valued at around $60.

A neighbor placed the 911 call telling dispatchers Haarsma stole the furniture and needed a hospital.

Alison Savarese, the officer who shot and killed Haarsma, told investigators, "there was never any discussion about a possible Baker Act or handling the call as a mental health matter."

Even though the report found that dispatchers told Savarese "that she was to use universal precautions and the subject was 'Code 20,' (had mental health issues), which Officer Savarese acknowledged."

"I just can't make sense of it the whole thing stinks if you ask me," William Rafferty, a long-time friend of Haarsma, told Paluska.

Rafferty said he wants people to know his friend had a debilitating mental illness, but his life didn't deserve to be taken so soon.

"I'd like people to know about Jeff; Jeff was one in a million, one in a million," Rafferty said. Jeff was a compassionate, warm, kind, wonderful soul. He was understanding, great to talk to, very easy to talk to. He loved his plants. He could grow anything. His house looked like a jungle. He was just a great guy. And, I wake up and think about him cause he was so much fun too, and we would send funny stuff back and forth to each other all day long, and I miss that I miss my friend."

Records show from 2017 until the day Haarsma died, 25 calls were related to Haarsma. Because his neighbor called 911, police told me the officer safety notes were not flagged for arriving officers. The dispatch system was changed following the deadly encounter. When an officer responds to a location or apartment complex with people known to be violent and suffering from mental illness, officers are alerted.

"I still can't come to grips with how it was described that he was they basically portrayed him as being a monster, and he wasn't that wasn't the Jeff that I knew or ever knew I just find the whole thing hard to believe," Rafferty said.

Rafferty said police made several errors the night Haarsma died and during a 2017 incident where Haarsma's psychologist had him Baker Acted. While police were checking on Haarsma, the report says Haarsma became violent; officers used a taser to get him under control. Rafferty calls it a turning point, where he believes his friend developed a deep distrust of law enforcement.

"I think he was pretty fearful," Rafferty said. "In 2017, the police humiliated him and dragged him out of his house in his underwear on a stretcher in front of all his neighbors in broad daylight. He had cut his nose, and they knocked him down. It was tragic, and it was scary. It took a couple of months for him to get over that imagine police officers barreling into his house for no apparent reason, no crime, and they manhandle you.

Paluska spoke to Haarsma's psychologist, Nancy Silva, about the 2017 incident and his shooting death. In both cases, she believes if police handled that call properly and had the proper training to deescalate the situation, things may have ended without violence.

The task force report concluded the shooting was justified. Numerous witnesses told investigators they saw Haarsma choking the officer and believed he was going to kill her or throw her over the balcony. ABC Action News requested pictures of the officer's injuries that show red marks on both sides of her neck. In September, Holloway told ABC Action News reporter Sarah Hollenbeck, "the system failed the deceased. For two years, we had gone out to this location with police interaction, psychologist interaction. We didn't do anything for the deceased. Law enforcement can only do so much, but what else can we do?"

Following Haarsma's death, all officers must have mental health training.

Police were already in the process of getting all their officers equipped with body cameras. Steps Rafferty wishes the department had done sooner.

"I think it's great they are finally doing something, but unfortunately, it happened after my best friend died," Rafferty said.

CALL PILOT PROGRAM

The CALL program was in the works before the fatal encounter. But, Haarsma's death highlights the difficulties officers face responding to calls for mental health.

Navigators will respond only to non-violent calls and, if anything happens, are trained to call law enforcement and get to safety.

"I was a case manager for six years, and I worked alone and did similar things. I didn't have a gun. I didn't have anything else. I have a police officer I can call, social worker Angela Catton said. "It's just what you do. It comes with the territory. Coming with the police has really opened my eyes on things to look for the safety part of it."

Social workers will respond to non-violent 911 calls in teams of 2 or 3. Until the department gets into phase 3, they will continue to embed with the PATH unit. The pilot program runs through Sept. 30Sept. 30. Catton hopes it lasts even longer.

"I was so excited because, in my head, I had invented this position for myself years ago," Catton said. "Like, I saw the need when I worked in case management you see the need, and I'm like why don't the police get some of us to help out and deescalate some of these situations. You know you hear of people getting killed and stuff, and I could've had an impact in that's what I'm thinking in my head."

We watched as Catton's words did finally make an impact. She helped calm down a woman threatening suicide and getting her to the hospital for the help she needed.

"The objective is to get her help, so we met the objective in my opinion, we stopped her from killing herself. That's the goal," Catton said.