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Local activist pleased with local police reform efforts, say more work is needed

Posted at 6:03 AM, Apr 22, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — Law enforcement agencies across the Tampa Bay area have already taken major steps toward police reform in the wake of the George Floyd murder.

"There has been extraordinary progress and changes happening," said Micah Johnson.

Johnson is an activist and mental health law and policy professor at USF.

"I've been in this work for 15 years. It's a very different experience today," he said.

Johnson's latest book, "The Little Book of Police Young Dialogue," is about this topic. He uses the book to explain the history of law enforcement in America and its' relationship with the black community.

"The conversations were very different before now," Johnson said. "The doors were closed. Now we have people making institutional changes. We have real commitment."

For many, police reform starts with the George Floyd Justice in Police Act of 2020, which calls for accountability for law enforcement, transparency, reform police training and policies.

"The country has spoken," said April Lott, the president and CEO of Directions for Living.

Some of that is already happening across the Tampa Bay area.

Mayor Jane Castor formed a community task force. Several local agencies, like the Tampa Police Department, expanded de-escalation training and made arrest reports and officer complaints available online.

Most of the major local police departments and sheriff's offices are now using body cameras.

"We are absolutely on the right path," said Lott.

Directions for Living is a local non-profit organization that works primarily with people battling mental illness and law enforcement. More than 80% of the calls deputies or police officers respond to are mental health related, or nonviolent situations, according to Lott. That's where Directions for Living comes in.

"We need our police officers to play a very specific and clearly defined role," Lott said. "They should not be left to respond to a mental health crisis."

Lott created the area's first mental health unit. It consists of one officer and a mental health professional. They are the two people who will respond to mental health calls.

But what about the hundreds of other calls? What if the mental health unit is busy?

Lott created a new program called TRACE. It stands for Telehealth, Remote Access for Crisis Evaluation.

Officers or deputies are assigned an iPad, which will be in their patrol units. When officers arrive on the scene of a mental health call, they'll use the iPad to call a counselor who will take over the situation and talk to the patient. Largo and Belleaire Police departments are the only two departments testing the program currently.

"That's great. That's an extraordinary program," Johnson said. "They are funneling people who need help away from incarcerations and arrest."

Despite the changes happening, the NACCP says more work needs to be done, especially when it comes to trust between law enforcement and the black community.