Bay Area law enforcement shift strategies for dealing with mental health

Law enforcement agencies are taking a hard look at how they police the community, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office announced a new behavioral health program, joining Tampa and St. Petersburg police departments in changing how they respond to mental health-related calls.

St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway said they are moving closer toward a launch date as they wait for responses following the request for proposals in October.

Police get calls for all kinds of needs and concerns, and Holloway told FOX 13 they are working toward changing how they respond to those dealing with social services and mental health issues.

“We can't handle this task. This task is too much for us that we need experts to help us out. So I think you're seeing through the nation that law enforcement officers are looking at why are we going to non-criminal calls. Why don’t we have those experts to help us out?” said Holloway.

In July St. Pete police announced a program to shift those calls to experts, and now they’re waiting to find the right group of social workers.

“After those contracts come in November, then we'll do an evaluation and we'll select three or four companies. Then they'll come in and do a presentation in December, and then by January it will go before the city council for their final approval,” said Holloway.

If approved, Holloway said he plans to roll out the program immediately, focusing solely on non-criminal calls.

“It will be done in three phases. Phase One will be the social worker and the officer responding together. Phase Two will be the officer will meet the social worker at the call, and the ultimate goal is to have the social worker going to the call by his or herself,” said Holloway.

Joining St. Pete in those changes are Tampa police and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. On Monday HCSO announced a new behavioral health unit they hope will prevent crime by connecting people to the help they need.

“If we can divert them and get them into other services, maybe more effective treatment, that would certainly mitigate some of these calls for service,” said Master Deputy Tobias Smith, a behavioral health deputy at HCSO.

After community feedback to improve policing, police say it’s time to bring in the mental health experts.

“They need someone not only to help them at that time but also to help them the next day and the next day to get through the crisis that they're going through,” said Holloway.

St. Pete police said the pilot program will cost the city $860,000 for the first budget year, which runs from January to September, and then the department will have to approach city council about the future of the program.

FOX 13 checked in with Tampa police on progress with their initiative, and TPD said they are still requesting feedback from mental health experts on what approach would work best for Tampa.