HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office announced the creation of HCSO's Behavioral Resources Unit Friday.
Officials said the unit will focus on identifying individuals who have come into contact with law enforcement numerous times due to mental health issues or homelessness.
The unit is made up of deputies, licensed mental health counselors and licensed clinical social workers.
The agency says between January of 2018 to October of 2020, there have been more than 10,000 Baker Acts in the county. The Baker Act is a Florida law that allows designated professionals including law enforcement, judges, doctors or mental health professional to initiate an involuntary mental health examination on a person or child who exemplifies a mental illness by displaying behavior that poses a threat to themselves or others.
“Mental health issues don’t discriminate," said Chronister. "They affect people of all walks of life and it’s one of law enforcement’s biggest challenges, which is why the creation of this unit is so important.”
Chronister touts this unit stands out from similar programs in that it will seek out people, outside the scope of a crisis or arrest. Meaning, deputies would be knocking on their door while there is no emergency happening. The point is for the specialized behavioral and homeless outreach deputies and the licensed mental health care professionals to talk with them about resources for shelter, food and counseling.
“It’s not a reactive unit, it’s going to be extremely proactive and preventative," said Chronister.
Clara Reynolds, the CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and a licensed clinical social worker herself, says programs like this one are popping up all over the U.S.
“we’re under a behavioral health tsunami at this point that has been created by this global pandemic with all of the other uncertainties that have happened so any additional resources and support are certainly welcome from a behavioral health perspective," she said.
Like Chronister, she believes the unit has the potential to curb crime.
“Our criminal justice system oftentimes becomes the de facto behavioral health system, so I do believe this will help to reduce crime and more importantly get people the health and support that they need at a critical time in their lives," she said.
Gary Pruitt, Chronister's challenger for the sheriff's seat, disagrees. He believes the unit's surprise visits could put all sides at risk.
In a statement, he said: "Unsolicited home visits not only put the deputies and civilian employees at a greater risk, but also put those who they are visiting at risk due to the unknown nature of why the police are knocking at their door, which could lead to law enforcement becoming involved in a situation that they created.”
Pruitt's full statement can be found below:
The implantation of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Mental Health Unit is long overdue. Sheriff Chronister is using the current state of the union to campaign with taxpayer dollars by doing a press conference on a 3 month old unit during the last week of early voting and a week before election day. During his press conference he announced that there is a new “3 month old” unit for helping with mental health victims but failed to go into any detail on how the unit will actually help those in need besides helping with resources, which should be a priority of the responding deputies on the date of incident. This is nothing more than a political stunt to get more time in front of the TV with his name showing on at least 5 areas visible to the camera, including the microphone that he spoke into during the conference.
During this press conference we learned only after a reporter asked a question that this unit will be seeking out those to offer resources too, rather than helping them during the time of crisis. Unsolicited home visits not only put the deputies and civilian employees at a greater risk, but also put those who they are visiting at risk due to the unknown nature of why the police are knocking at their door, which could lead to law enforcement becoming involved in a situation that they created. A prime example is the very situation that Sheriff Chronister mentioned during the conference where a deputy and mental health counselor went to a house, the subject ran away and subsequently stabbed the deputy in the neck. Sheriff Chronister then went on the news and said “We will see to it that this individual is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for his actions”, this shows that now this subject will be prosecuted yet once again, and this current method is creating the very situation it should be avoiding, while putting the deputies in harm’s way.
Under my leadership, I want all deputies to be trained and empowered to assist those in mental crisis without having to enter them into the justice system and then have a “follow up” visit by a unit after to offer assistance. This unit as it currently stands will pull 10 deputies off of an already critically shorthanded staff to offer resources that every man and women in law enforcement can do if properly trained. It is time that we focus on solutions at the time of need rather than embarrassing people at their homes by a proactive unsolicited unit. Let’s help those in crisis at the time they call for help, get them the resources they need so they never have to even enter the justice system at all.
Earlier this month, a man in the process of getting Baker Acted stabbed a Hillsborough County Deputy in the neck. The deputy was taken to a hospital.
Following the confrontation, Chronister said in a press release, "Deputy Williams used an incredible amount of restraint by deploying less-lethal force on an individual who attempted to take his life."
The sheriff says it's thanks to the deputy’s mandated crisis intervention training that he was able to remain cool and in control through the situation. In June of 2019, the agency expanded its crisis intervention training, requiring all sworn deputies to take 40 hours of training.
“I think you are going to see this more and more across the country. These violent interactions with law enforcement can be prevented," said Chronister.
ABC Action News asked the sheriff how often his deputies would seek out these people and what happens if they don't want to talk.
“These are voluntary services. If we make contact with an individual and they say they don’t want the help — obviously that’s the first and biggest obstacle we face — then we’ll leave and scratch them off the list.”