Pasco Sheriff beefs up mental health services

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco is ramping up efforts to address mental health issues, in his agency’s daily work.

The sheriff explained his team’s approach to those attending the September breakfast meeting of The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.

Nocco said mental health issues are expanding in a way that affects public safety, during remarks to dozens of chamber members at the Golden Corral in Zephyrhills.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco was the featured guest speaker at The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce September breakfast meeting at the Golden Corral in Zephyrhills. (Kevin Weiss)

About 11 percent of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s calls for service last year were mental-health related, which equates to approximately 19,000 calls.

But, Nocco estimates the figure is even higher because the agency data doesn’t take into account calls that are related to overdoses, runaways, domestic violence linked to addiction and substance abuse, and other incidents possibly rooted in mental illness.

“I can tell you,” Nocco said, “roughly 20 percent of our calls for service are mental-health related.

“The meat of what we deal with is mental health and substance abuse issues,” Nocco said, “so what we’re doing is identifying the highest usage of individuals that have mental health issues and are consistently calling us.”

In an attempt “to get ahead of the curve,” the sheriff’s office has implemented some new approaches, Nocco said.

Foremost among them is the agency’s new Mental Health and Threat Assessment Team (MHTAT), he said. The unit consists of 15 sworn personnel and Baycare Behavioral Health case managers, aimed to better serve the needs of people facing significant mental health issues.

The team’s primary task is to keep tabs on individuals who have been held involuntarily in a mental health treatment facility for up to 72 hours, through a state law known as the Baker Act. They focus on approximately 500 people who are Baker Act repeats.

The team uses a proactive approach that includes frequent visitations, welfare checks, expedited behavioral health resources and criminal justice diversion programs.

By getting to the “root issues” of problems and offering resources, the unit will help reduce the number of calls to 911 — thereby enabling patrol deputies to respond more quickly to urgent or violent calls, Nocco said.

Another unit component includes threat assessments and interventions for troubled students in the school system  —  as a measure to prevent school violence acts, or school shootings.

The county’s most at-risk kids are identified with assistance from school resource officers and the agency’s Child Protective Investigations Divisions, the sheriff said.

The at-risk kids typically include runaways, students with frequent school changes, those with prior run-ins with law enforcement or those with parents under child welfare investigations, he said.

The idea is to provide early intervention to help prevent future problems, Nocco said.

“I’m not saying we’re going to be perfect. There’s always that lone wolf, that one individual that just decides to do something, but, for the majority of people, if we can be smart about how we operate, we’re going to be way more successful.”

In Nocco’s opinion, the general rise of mental illness is tied to the proliferation of the digital age and the rise of social media. He displayed his own smartphone and said: “These are destroying us.”

The sheriff also noted that his agency is working to reduce the recidivism rate for inmates at the Land O’ Lakes detention center.

To that end, the jail has various inmate labor programs and vocational programs, including a welding program that allows inmates to get certified skills, with the aim of equipping them for jobs upon their release.

Said Nocco: “There are people that have addictions or people that have gone through problems  that made bad decisions, but now this is the first time in the jail that they actually get up at 4 o’clock in the morning, they’re actually doing work, they’re actually going, ‘Huh, if I do this I can succeed.’”

The sheriff also shared some other information about his department, including:

  • A memorandum of understanding his agency has with the City of Zephyrhills to operate a portion of the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport in emergencies and natural disasters, such as hurricanes. The agency will use the location to distribute various resources (food, water, first aid supplies, etc.) throughout the county.
  • The K9 Tactical Center/Florida’s Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactics (F.I.R.S.T.) is expected to have some of its first operations up and running by next spring. Construction on Land O’ Lakes-based forensics research and training center campus began in September 2018. The $4.3 million state-funded project is designed to provide “a holistic approach” to crime scene operations and investigations, as a collaborative resource for universities, forensic scientists and law enforcement.

Published September 11, 2019

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