HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — A new unit focusing on "identifying individuals who have come into contact with law enforcement numerous times due to mental health issues or homelessness" is in full operation at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
The unit made up of five specially trained behavioral health deputies, five homeless outreach deputies, and three newly-hired behavioral health care managers, either a licensed mental health counselor or a licensed clinical social worker, has been offering assistance for three months now.
Its purpose? Connecting people with mental health conditions or individuals experiencing homelessness with services they need to help avoid a crisis situation.
"The unit will serve as an efficient and more effective means to connect individuals who face mental health issues with resources before they ever need to dial 911," Sheriff Chad Chronister said.
The unit is something Chronister hopes helps these individuals stay out of the criminal justice system as opposed to in the past.
From January 18 through the beginning of October, Chronister says there have been more than 10,000 baker acts across the county. Of those 1,200 were baker acted more than once and some more than 10 times.
"This is a cycle we must break," Chronister said. The new behavioral unit looks to do that one step at a time.
And it already appears to be working. Chronister said they have established a positive relationship with a man they have come in contact with more than 100 times in the past 15 years. The unit meets with him regularly and has helped him "stay healthy and out of the criminal justice system."
Lauren Alston is a Behavioral Health Case Manager with the unit. She said, "I think we can be a central way of connecting people who fall through the cracks," adding that deputies are usually first to come in contact with people dealing with a mental health crisis, substance abuse, or homelessness.
Law enforcement gets the call before counselors who work in non-profits and private sectors.
"I'm very excited to see the tremendous benefit that this unit will provide for members of our community who need it the most," Chronister said of the unit's proactive approach.
Chronister called the creation of the unit important to ensure the best training for deputies in an area he says law enforcement struggles with.
All services are voluntary. If someone refuses the assistance the sheriff's office will leave the unit's contact information in case they change their mind in the future.
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