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St. Pete Police following through on promise to reform policing with 'CALL' program

It’s designed to bring more social and mental health workers into the equation and let law enforcement concentrate its resources on policing.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — St. Petersburg Police and community leaders gathered virtually on Thursday for an update on the city’s new Community Assistance and Life Liaison program, also known as “CALL."

It’s designed to bring more social and mental health workers into the equation and let law enforcement concentrate its resources on policing.

From early indications, the CALL program is doing what it was designed to do.

Mental health and social workers are handling cases that used to be answered by police officers, and in doing so, building trust, relationships and providing services that look to break the cycle of homelessness, addiction and mental health crises.

“We are really engaging individuals in change support plans. Getting them, again - out of crisis into a longer-term solution,” said Megan McGee, who is coordinating the program at St. Pete PD.

The city has teamed up with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, which is well-trained and well-established in the region for its social and mental health services.

The plan is to respond to what they see as five key categories including mental health, substance abuse, neighborhood crimes and disputes, youth issues like truancy and poverty issues including homelessness. 

As part of the effort to reduce repeat calls to the police department, the CALL program will also operate a 24/7 phone number provided to individuals they come in contact with, instead of relying on 911 for non-emergency needs.

“We feel that this creates a better impact in our community to have these trained human service and mental health professionals address quality of life issues and create a true plan for these individuals to move them out of crisis,” said McGee.

At first, social workers were paired with police, but now almost a month into it, social workers are increasingly on their own.

At the six-month mark they’d like to see 80 percent of calls that meet their criteria responded to without law-enforcement. By the end of their eight-month trial, their goal is to achieve a 50 percent reduction in such calls to police, directed instead to them.

“Law enforcement is able to focus on public safety reducing crime, keeping our neighborhoods safe,” said McGee.

CALL was created after this past summer’s protests and demonstrations demanding police reform the way they respond to mental health crisis calls.

“This program is the direct result of residents raising their voices and saying we need to do more,” said Gulf Coast JFCS CEO Sandra Braham.

So far, it’s just a pilot program budgeted through the end of September. But St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway assured those participating that the city is committed to seeing CALL continue well beyond that.

“Because we need it,” said Chief Holloway, “And this is what our community wants.”

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