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St. Pete police chief addresses city council on first 100 days of new police initiative

Social workers responding to non-violent 911 calls
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway.
Posted at 10:32 PM, May 13, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — One of the most aggressive changes to policing in the Tampa Bay area just marked its 100th day in operation. St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway tells ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska he is highly pleased with the results.

Holloway said the Community Assistance and Life Liaison Program (CALL) was born out of the George Floyd protests.

Chief Holloway says he listened to his community and decided to make a change.

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"The kids that were protesting, really the groups and the conversation we had with the community, it's like you know what, they are right. Why are we doing this? And, that's how that program came about," Holloway said. "Now, with this, when we hear about a mental health crisis or a parent needing help with their child, instead of sending an officer there, we are going to send someone with more tools in their toolbox to help that person through that crisis."

The unarmed social workers will respond to various non-violent and non-criminal 911 calls. The program is so new, some of the social workers in the CALL program called navigators have shown up at a house, and the caller was confused, asking, "where are the police?"

Since it launched, more than 60% of the calls were related to mental health issues. Panhandling came in second, followed by neighbor disputes.

Holloway said they are working to educate the public on the changes to policing.

"The 911 operators, they are telling someone 'hey just to let you know a navigator or a mental health person is going to be responding to your home instead of a police officer' so they are aware of that," Holloway said.

The program's goal is to deescalate tense situations and get people in a mental health crisis the help they need. The chief said they have high users of the 911 system that can tie up an officer for hours. Keeping them from responding to life-threatening emergencies or crimes in progress.

ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska got an exclusive look at how the program works. We rode along with navigators during phase 2 of the program.

Next week, Holloway says they will enter phase 3, where navigators respond to non-violent and non-criminal 911 calls without police. That will be the true test of how much time and money is saved, freeing up police to respond to other issues.

"So now, we are looking at that time saving how much time because if we are still sending an officer and a navigator, there's really no cost-saving," Holloway said. "We are going to be looking at ok now the navigator is by his or herself can that officer, he or she, by doing other calls you know crime calls, but we are also going to be looking at those frequency calls."

Some high users call 911 multiple times a day. The CALL program has a dedicated 24-hour hotline to help ease the burden on 911 dispatchers. Launched in February, the chief said navigators have helped more than 1,100 citizens in need and responded to 350 calls for service instead of patrol officers.

Holloway said one of the most significant benefits is that officers are now building a relationship with the navigators and asking for help on non-violent 911 calls.

"We had 280 referrals, so now the officers are thinking, why am I here? This is a call for CALL," Holloway said.

Holloway said the program is in place not only to ease the burden of frequent 911 callers but to give people in need resources.

"There's follow-up now, so people are getting the service that they need," Holloway said. "The next day, a navigator may call you back just to check on you. There's constant care."

The Los Angeles Police Department launched a similar initiative last year.

"We had a few agencies contact us," Holloway said. "Once this is all done, we'll get a third party to do a survey; then we'll put it up on our webpage so people can see it. The model works good for us. Another agency may say we are going to do this but tweak it that way tweak it this way. Like I said, the main thing is to get officers back on the road and handle criminal calls and get professionals to handle people going through a crisis at this time."

The CALL program is contracted out to Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.

The chief said they added an item in the budget to extend the program another year after the pilot program ends on Sept. 30. That extension would have to be approved by the city council.

Holloway said the program isn't taking away from adding new police officers and is not defunding the police. He said they are adding money to their general fund to cover the program's costs.

The estimated total for the first year is $850,000 and, if approved, a little more than $1.1 million for the 12-month extension.