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Pinellas County sheriff announces expansion of mental health unit

Deputies and mental health workers to pair up
Posted at 4:31 PM, Sep 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-23 18:47:07-04

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Getting immediate help to people with mental health issues is the focus of a new, expanded program announced by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

Right now, if a deputy gets called out on a mental health issue, the Pinellas County sheriff says law enforcement has three options: arrest the person, take them to a mental health facility for a 72-hour involuntary hold or do nothing. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says none of those options fully solve the problem.

Starting in the next few weeks, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department will pair up 6 deputies with 6 mental health workers.

Initially, the teams will work Monday through Friday from noon to midnight responding to mental health calls specifically. The goal is to connect people who are experiencing a mental health crisis with immediate resources.

Sheriff Gualtieri says having deputies paired up with mental health workers is key because deputies only receive on average about 16 hours of mental health training in the police academy.

“We’re telling cops to be a jack of all trades, be mental health councilors and solve everything where they simply don’t have the skill set to do it effectively. They’re doing the best job they can with what we’ve given them, but we haven’t given them the right tools,” he explained.

Initially, the unit will be a pilot program focusing on the area of the county with the most mental health calls, which Gualtieri says is between State Road 580 and Park Boulevard.

On average every year, 200,000 people across Florida are baker acted, which means they’re held for 72 hours at a behavioral health center, then released. In Pinellas, it happens 11,000 times a year.

Gualtieri says it does next to nothing to solve the problem, but says the new system will work better.

“Through this model, we stop trying to make cops mental health providers and we don’t create a situation where mental health providers are trying to deal with a volatile and perhaps dangerous situation without law enforcement presence,” he added.

LaDonna Butler, a St. Petersburg licensed mental health counselor, agrees.

“We are criminalizing mental health versus treating it. We have the opportunity to do the right thing,” she said.

The sheriff also hopes this will help free up other deputies to respond to non-mental health calls quicker.

If the pilot program is successful, Gualtieri hopes to expand it even more in 2021.