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Local law enforcement say mental health calls are increasing

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Posted at 4:06 PM, May 26, 2021

When it comes to law enforcement, several local agencies say they’re in the midst of a mental health crisis. Calls are increasing year over year, and the outlook doesn’t look good if something isn’t done.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco has been an outspoken voice for ending the mental health stigma, both in the field and on social media.

“Trying to raise awareness in our community that you’re not alone out there,” said Pasco Sheriff Sheriff Chris Nocco.

Sheriff Nocco believes too many people are pushed to their breaking point, just because they don’t know what resources might be there for them.

“One is that they don’t know how to navigate through the system," Sheriff Nocco said. "The other part is, when they do have that crisis, they feel like they’re the only ones and they’re embarrassed by that stigma of saying ‘oh, I have a mental health issue or somebody else has a mental health issue.’”

The mental health calls are becoming more frequent in Pasco County.

“At least one-third of every call for service has a mental health component to that,” Nocco said.

But the resources aren’t keeping up, which is forcing law enforcement to do more with less.

“We created the Behavioral Health Team, I think we have, if not the largest, but one of the largest in the state of Florida. We have a great partnership with BayCare Behavioral. We also have a good partnership with our school district,” said Sheriff Nocco.

It’s those partnerships that leaders in law enforcement say are critical to addressing the issues of mental health and substance abuse.

“We have built silos, silos of confidential information about mental health in children in school, silos about mental health help by mental health officials, silos about mental health issues in law enforcement. So we got all these silos, and none of them are talking to each other,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

As calls for police reform continue, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd fears people are focusing efforts in the wrong places, calling for mental health counselors instead of the police.

“I see a nationwide push on mental health help, for which I’m appreciative. But I continue to see that they want more front-end services. Let’s send the mental health counselors instead of the police," Sheriff Judd opined. "Well, first and foremost, I see an infrastructure being created on the front end for an initial response. That means they have to have their own dispatch center, call-taking center, immediate response, okay? We’re taking away the violent people, but just the people that are a disruption. The problem is, when you spend all those millions and billions of dollars creating the front-end services, you’ve got absolutely nothing to help the person that is in mental health crisis or needs mental health help."

Sheriff Judd believes the problem could be much less prolific if community agencies would work together to address mental health. He even believes laws should be changed requiring those community agencies to do so.

“We’ve got to get the hospitals, the local mental health facilities, and then the schools, law enforcement, social services. Instead of hiding this stuff from each other, we’ve got to work together,” said Sheriff Judd.

Part of that, he says, is letting law enforcement continue to be first on scene.

“If it’s got guns and knives, mental health counselors can’t deal with it anyway. And let us go and say ‘Hmm, we’ve got enough training, and we can add to our training,’ say, this this person has issues, this person needs help,' then let us plug them into a wraparound service,” said Judd.

Nocco believes healthcare and law enforcement have converged in a sense, and that it’s time to start working together.

“Law enforcement services should not be reduced, but in reality, there should be added services to it. Adding to the fact that you should add social workers out there, you should add mental health providers,” said Sheriff Nocco.

Both sheriffs agree there is a way to alleviate mental health issues within our communities.

“This is not an easy problem to deal with. This is going to be long-term,” said Sheriff Nocco.

But it’s going to take working together.