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The Florida police department is diverting calls to mental health professionals

By: April Carson

A woman acting "bizarre," as reported by a caller in May, prompted the St. Petersburg Police Department to dispatch officers to her location. Instead of calling police, the city dispatched a team of mental health professionals from the Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program.

The CALL program is a joint effort between the city's police department and mental health professionals that began in 2016. It is designed to provide crisis intervention for people with mental illness who are experiencing a crisis, but who have not committed a crime.

Since its inception, the CALL program has responded to more than 1,000 calls. Of those, only seven have resulted in an arrest. The rest have been diverted to mental health resources.

They noticed warning signals, which confirmed that she was a trafficking victim. Her family was contacted to come and pick her up after she found a home.

The woman is one of thousands who has benefited from the CALL program, which was launched in February 2021 to divert certain calls away from police and toward unarmed mental health professionals.

The program is a joint effort between the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office (JSO) and the Mental Health Resource Center (MHRC).

MHRC Executive Director John Daugherty says the CALL program is about de-escalation. "We want to be able to provide that service so people can get the help they need without having to involve law enforcement," Daugherty said.

Daugherty says the program is not only for people dealing with mental health crises, but also for those who may be experiencing homelessness, addiction, or domestic violence.

"We're trying to take a mental health approach to people in crisis, as opposed to a law enforcement approach," Daugherty told First Coast News. "Oftentimes, when police are called, it's because somebody is in a mental health crisis."

The St. Petersburg Police Department's Megan McGee explained that the CALL program grew out of the nationwide police reform protests in the summer of 2020.

“They were both really progressive,” McGee added. “They wanted to hear what the community was asking for, so they would have been receptive to it if we called them up today.”

St. Petersburg officials looked at other places in the United States that used mental health professionals to handle emergency situations when designing the CANDE program. While they considered the co-responder method, which involves mental health experts responding to calls alongside police, they ultimately desired to create a system that allows 911 calls to be completely diverted from law enforcement.

The city chose Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, a local nonprofit that specializes in behavioral health, to create a CALL team made up of social workers, mental health professionals, and others with prior experience dealing with at-risk people. That staff responds to live 911 calls as well as officer referrals. On some occasions, they've even been sent to calls that come in as potential crimes, only to find out that the person in question was having a mental health crisis.

The CALL team is available 24/7, and their goal is to de-escalate situations and connect people with resources like housing, food, and counseling. So far, the program has been successful, with over 80% of the people they've interacted with avoiding arrest.

CALL also responds to substance-abuse-related calls, some calls related to homelessness, neighborhood issues, and certain juvenile complaints.

"CALL's program manager Tianna Audet described the organization's approach to assist someone in crisis without arresting them and help them get to longer-term assistance," according to the report.

“We might say, ‘Somebody is staggering in the middle of the road and instead of arresting them for public intoxication, we suggest that they get help,'” Audet continued. “We can take you to detox. We can link you with mental health services if necessary.”

Because it is a new program, CALL currently operates only between 8 a.m. and midnight - expanding further would be contingent on more personnel and funding. However, preliminary findings suggest that it has had an impact in reducing police presence.

“In the first two months that the program was operational, police were dispatched to 1,315 calls involving people with mental illness - an 11 percent decrease from the number of such calls during the same period last year,” the report said. “Calls involving people with addiction decreased by 7 percent.”

According to Officer Sean McGee, the department's communications supervisor, 40% of all police calls that fall within CALL's purview are concluded by members of the organization. Since its inception in February 2021, the group has helped more than 3,000 individuals.

She acknowledged that the city receives more than 500,000 calls each year. As a result, CALL is only handling a tiny percentage of demands and cannot substitute the police in most circumstances.

Despite this, there are indications that the program is already starting to pay dividends. While emergency calls for suicide rose 60% in 2021, there was actually a 17% decrease in completed suicides.

“We can't point to a single cause, or a direct link; however...when we were seeing such a massive number of suicide threats, I can't imagine how law enforcement would be able to manage it on top of what they were already doing.” McGee continued.

CALL is not the only police-mental health partnership in the country, but it is one of the most comprehensive. So far, it seems to be having a positive effect on both the police department and the community it serves.

One of the program's most persistent problems is that access to assistance for individuals in mental health crises remains restricted. Too often, people in need of help do not receive the care they need until it is too late.

That is why CALL's work is so important. By providing a direct line to mental health professionals, the program is helping to ensure that people in crisis get the help they need before it is too late.

“Naturally, it's all about money and insurance. If you don't have insurance, you know that certain facilities will take the uninsured and there will be waiting lists. The mental health service isn't nearly as good as I'd like to make it seem. Some case managers have more than 60 clients on their books but only work 40 hours a week.”

Despite the difficulties, the CALL Program has been able to make significant changes in people's lives. A mother with four children recently immigrated to the region to live with her partner, according Audet. However, their boyfriend kicked them out, leaving them homeless and unable to afford housing.

“She had no money,” Audet added. “Her family didn't have the funds to bring her back to Texas. We were able to use our resources to get her gas gift cards so she could drive home in her car. She was subsequently reunited with her relatives.”

Other CALL clients have been able to get jobs, find housing, and access mental health services – all because of the program.

“It's very rewarding,” Audet said. “When we can make a difference in someone's life, it's worth all the challenges we face.”

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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