The number of mental health calls into police departments are rising dramatically across Tampa Bay. More police departments are training their officers how to handle the complex cases, and Largo's Police Chief plans to hire specific officers to tackle mental health calls.
It's uplifting news for Cara Castillo, whose friend Nick Provenza was shot by Tarpon Springs Police Officer a few months ago.
“Nick did not want to leave this earth. He loved life,” she explained.
The pain is still raw for Provenza's friends and family. The 25-year-old was shot and killed in the middle of a charity car show when Tarpon Springs officers say he pulled out a knife.
Castillo and her friends wonder if the shooting could have been avoided with something very simple.
“If that officer would have just talked to him. If he would have asked him 'What’s going on? Hows your day going?'”
Provenza had a long history with mental illness. .
“With mental health or even a standard health issue you could be acting crazy and other people don’t know,” Castillo elaborated.
Castillo and her friends are now pushing for big changes in the wake of Provenza's death. They're encouraging police officers to take more mental health training.
"It’s beautiful to see the officers that do go through the training that can talk someone down. They use their words to dissolve the situation rather than coming up to them and assuming they’re an erratic person,” Castillo added.
Largo Police are going one step further. The department will soon create an entire new mental health unit, with at least 5 officers trained to specifically help in mental health calls. The Department wants to promote three existing officers and hire 1-2 new officers who have experience working with mental health patients. The focus will be on creating better relationships with people who struggle with mental health issues in order to avoid issues.
Randall Chaney, a lieutenant with the Largo Police Department explains, “These types of calls are a little more challenging because the people you’re dealing with have layers of things you don’t know about in their lives.”
It comes at a crucial time. 10,000 people were baker acted last year in Pinellas County, and the calls keep going up.
“I think it’s very important. It serves the community and it’s a positive thing for the community and the police department," Chaney said.
Castillo hopes more police departments follow Largo’s lead, "If they have that training, they’ll be able to differentiate if they’re having a health issue, mental health issue or if they’re dangerous or not dangerous and what they need.”
Largo's Police Department applied for a grant to make the new mental health unit possible. They expect to hear back by September if they're awarded the money.