Police departments slow to address need for mental health support in law enforcement

Critical decisions can be the difference between life and death during a mental health emergency, and police officers often end up responding to those calls.

A call for help during a crisis ended with police forcibly restraining Daniel Prude on the ground in Rochester, New York in March. He later died. An autopsy report cited asphyxia, and his death was ruled a homicide.

“The way the system is designed, it’s putting individuals with a gun to respond to something that needs some care,” said Dr. LaDonna Butler, a licensed mental health counselor and head of The Well For Life in St. Petersburg.

In the last three months, Tampa and St. Petersburg police departments announced they are making efforts to get experts involved.

In July, St. Pete police said social workers would take over mental health and social service calls, and the chief of police said he hoped to start that on October 1.

But Friday a St. Pete police spokesperson told FOX 13 that there is no bid out for a contract yet and no timeline for when the program will start.

MORE: St. Pete PD promised new team for non-violent 911 calls by Oct. 1; now says timeline uncertain

As for Tampa police, Chief Brian Dugan shared details Wednesday about his plan but did not specify when the changes would begin.

“Initially what we are going to use is potentially two analysts that will help identify the people that we come in contact with the most and those that are in critical needs,” said Dugan. “We will help develop a program to check up on them, make sure that they’re following their care. The idea is to continually assist them, so that we don’t have to interact with them when they hit a crisis.”

Mental health counselors said police are moving in the right direction, but there’s a sense of urgency.

“The longer that we delay this process, the more incidents where officers are put in situations that they are not trained to respond to,” said Butler. “I am so hopeful that not only Tampa but St. Petersburg begin to respond with even greater urgency in doing the right things.”

Tampa police said their mental health response plan will develop more at a later date. The chief said they first have to find the experts to help guide them.