Social workers respond to 100 days of calls in effort to improve policing in St. Pete

The first 100 days are in for the new social worker response program with the St. Petersburg Police Department, the chief of police reported Thursday.

It’s part of an effort to shift more mental health and social service calls from police to the experts, and Chief Anthony Holloway said officers and social workers currently go out on calls together.

"The main thing is making sure that client receives help after that call because that’s what we’re lacking," said Holloway during a virtual community update. "We keep going back to that same house over and over again and not solving that problem."

The response team is made up of 15 people and they’ve handled 1,159 calls since the program started in January.

"On one call where there was already fire department there and officers there trying to talk to a subject, when the navigator arrived he was able to help that person. So we didn’t have to use more force," said Holloway to the city council.

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Discussions to implement this type of program started last year following protests against police brutality. The rise in mental health calls during the pandemic adds to the need.

"It’s so critical right now as we’re seeing spikes in mental health concerns that people are able to get the help that they need in a way that is meaningful to them," said Dr. LaDonna Butler, a mental health counselor and owner of The Well For Life. 

Butler said the response is a step in the right direction.

"We need every officer trained in mental health and first aid, every officer. We need every officer to understand the signs of a mental health crisis," said Butler. "We need every officer to understand how their own experiences, their cultural experiences, shape the way that they respond to human behavior."

Experts said who responds to the calls matters just as much as how they respond, and one city council member agreed during Thursday’s meeting.

"My major concern was the composition of staff. Is it reflective of the community that we’re actively serving?" said Deborah Figgs-Sanders, St. Pete city councilmember for District 5. 

Counselors said the program should be diverse so that people in crisis can get help from social workers who look like them.

Chief Holloway said they will start to shift more responsibility to the social workers, so they can eventually respond to calls by themselves.