SPPD forming new team to respond to non-violent 911 calls

With St. Petersburg police announcing Thursday it will change the way it responds to certain 911 calls, community members say it’s a good first step toward change in policing.

The city had $3.8 million set aside to hire 25 new officers and instead they are hiring social service workers with some law enforcement training to handle mental health and social service related calls.

The police union president said the organization supports the community assistant liaison, or CAL, program.

“We believe this will lead to decreased strain on precious police resources, reduce risk to our member officers, and create better outcomes for the most vulnerable citizens who we serve,” said Jon Vazquez, president of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association.

Community members invested in change say it’s a step in the right direction.

“I think that person is more likely to stay alive, not be arrested for something they are essentially asking for help for,” said Carla Bristol, a St. Pete business owner and community activist. Bristol said she would like more answers on what’s required of the liaison officers compared to police. “When you’re trying to get into the conversation about community policing, how much of what we’ve been asking for is actually going to be present?”

Licensed mental health counselor Dr. LaDonna Butler has experience working with Pinellas County law enforcement on mental health calls.

“I believe that this is a model. I believe that we are going to learn together as a community. I think we’re going to find a way,” said Dr. Butler.

Dr. Butler said the changes will likely improve interactions with police.

“I believe that when you have trained professional meeting the needs of individuals that only can enhance community trust and community safety,” she said.

Some St. Pete residents involved in community activism and peaceful protests said the October 1 start date for the new program needs to come sooner.

“I wish they would have started immediately. My life is going on right now. Oppression is hitting me in my head when I walk out this door,” said community activist and St. Pete resident Jabaar Edmond. “Any decision around equity needs to be immediate. It needs to be immediate because my life is in danger.”

They said this is a start, but there’s much more work to do.

“The future is in our hands, so we just have to keep working for it and keep at it and keep inspiring other people to not turn the other cheek,” said Tiffany Taylor, a community activist and St. Pete resident.

A St. Pete police spokesperson said it’s unclear how long the program will last once it’s slated to begin. Community members said they believe it should be an ongoing program.