Sarasota County mental health team intervenes before the need for 911

In Sarasota County, law enforcement agencies are forming a behavioral health response team to help deputies and officers respond safely to emergencies that may involve a mental health crisis.

On August 2, Sarasota County deputies responded to a woman with a history of mental health illness. She was armed with a knife and threatened deputies, who tried to deescalate the situation, but when the woman advanced toward them, she was shot and killed by a deputy.

Across the county law enforcement officers face these types of situations every day.

"At the end of the day, we are not clinicians, we aren’t pros. We are cops. There is really no valor in us going out to these scenes," said Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight.

He hopes to put an end to these types of calls. The Sarasota County Sheriff's Office is partnering with law enforcement from North Port, Venice and Sarasota, as well as the First Step program, to form a behavioral health response team.

"Why don’t we use who we know are calling us over and over during a crisis and take these case workers to them and let them develop a plan with their families and enact that plan before it gets too late and you have to dial 911?" said Sheriff Knight.

The program has been up and running for the last six months. Funding is provided by the Barancik Foundation and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

The plan starts with identifying those facing mental health illness. A clinician from First Step will then join a deputy or officer in meeting that person and their family. From there, they can come up with a plan for treatments and what to do if they don't feel right.

The hope is to get each person help before 911 is dialed.

"This job is to help protect people, keep people safe and anytime we have to use force, deadly force, that puts an extra burden on each officer," said Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino.

If it comes down to calling for help, responders will get real-time advice on how to deescalate the situation. Law enforcement still has the primary role and clinicians would never respond to a situation by themselves.

"We will have trained professionals that know how to handle these situations and then guide the people into the correct course of action to help their life and benefit their life," said Chief DiPino.

The goal is to save lives.

"There's a better way to do it and society wants a better way to do it. We believe this program fits our community the right way," said Sheriff Knight.

Knight says he is preparing to retire from the sheriff's office. In January he'll take over as CEO and president of First Step.