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St. Pete Police Department's mental health CALL program decreased suicides by 17%

CALL program de-stigmatizes mental health
Navigators with the CALL program in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Posted at 11:10 AM, May 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-18 17:55:28-04

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Launched in Feb. 2021, the Community Assistance and Life Liaison program (CALL) is seeing results in helping people in crisis.

The initiative started as a pilot program where social workers and mental health professionals would respond to non-violent and non-criminal calls for service and not the police. The initiative is one of the most significant changes in the country for how law enforcement protects their community. 

ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska was the first reporter to exclusively ride along with CALL navigators a few weeks into the new program.

The CALL program responds to calls such as disorderly intoxication, drug overdose, behavioral health crisis, suicide intervention, truancy, homeless complaints, and neighborhood disputes.

 "We have had clients that have referred to the call team as a bright spot, and in a crisis situation, and a game-changer for their mental health recovery," Megan McGee, a Special Projects Manager at the St. Petersburg Police Department, said. 

The program is a Gulf Coast JFCS–led program in partnership with St. Petersburg Police Department.

The CALL program responds to calls such as disorderly intoxication, drug overdose, behavioral health crisis, suicide intervention, truancy, homeless complaints, and neighborhood disputes.

At the beginning of the pilot, navigators teamed up with police for training in safety and situational awareness. Today, more than 95% of all non-violent 911 calls are handled by navigators.

"The CALL team has absolutely changed the way we respond to mental health concerns in the city of St. Petersburg. It is a way to appropriately respond to mental health concerns," McGee said. "It de-stigmatizes mental health and mental illness because we are sending mental health professionals to these types of calls instead of police, and we are diverting those calls from a law enforcement response."

Paluska went back out with navigators to see how the program operated a year later. We were with Bill Li as he responded to a woman at the police department complaining about tracking devices installed in her neck. But, when I tried to help calm her down, she refused help.

"She's experiencing an episode where she thinks she's actively believing those chips in her neck," Li said.  

"And she only wanted to talk to the police officer?" Paluska asked.

"Because she wants to investigate it, she believes a crime has been committed against her," Li explained. "So at this moment, she 100% believes that she needs an investigation about what's going on. So she just wants to talk to the police. And I just gave her a card, and I told her, don't hesitate to call us."

The program was renewed for an additional two years. Their success is now becoming a model for agencies nationally and internationally.

"The CALL team has been featured in some national research for the model. One of them is a toolkit from the Vera Institute, and it's basically to allow and provide information for other municipalities to replicate a program like CALL," McGee said.

According to data provided by the police department, suicide calls went up 60% in 2021. However, when the CALL program was implemented, McGee said they saw a 17% decrease in individuals committing suicides from the previous year.

"Suicide threat is the most important part and the ones that we are trying to assess and make sure that they're not at risk of hurting themselves," Li said.

Every month, police tell us CALL responds to an average of 208 live calls and 118 follow-ups and receives between 60-80 referrals. Since the program began, CALL has served over 3,000 people, completed over 5,300 contacts (a combination of live calls, follow-ups, and referrals), and received over 1,000 Officer referrals.

The woman who refused help from Li at the police department called Li about an hour later and asked him for the name of a therapist.