Law enforcement agencies nationwide have come under scrutiny, amid calls for reform to police practices, and redirecting funds toward mental health programming and support.
Some area agencies — such as the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department —already incorporate social workers and specialized mental health units, in responding to nonviolent calls for service.
Those two programs were outlined during an Oct. 12 webinar panel discussion called, “The Evolving Movement to Engage and Protect Our Community.”
The discussion was hosted by Saint Leo University and FIRST, which stands for Florida’s Forensics Institute for Research Security & Tactics.
A look at Pasco’s BHIT program
The Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s Behavioral Health Intervention Team (BHIT), which began operating last June, seeks to match people who need services, with the services they need.
The unit includes 12 detectives, two sergeants, a captain and a full-time civilian analyst (and two therapy dogs) working in partnership with local hospitals and mental health facilities, to conduct frequent visitations and welfare checks.
They help expedite referrals for behavioral health resources and criminal justice diversion programs for the county’s Baker Act repeats and other “high utilizers.”
Each BHIT detective has a caseload of 20 to 25 individuals they’re tasked to keep tabs on, and help with needed assistance and resources.
“We’ve literally given them the 250 most challenging people in Pasco County,” Pasco Sheriff’s Office Future Operations Bureau Chief Phil Kapusta said, referring to the program.
Before BHIT was implemented, one “high utilizer” had called the county’s 911 line 138 times in a single year.
The individual has since been assigned a BHIT detective, who is tasked with responding and speaking directly with that individual.
During the past year, that individual has made no calls to 911, Kapusta said. Instead, the person frequently calls the detective’s work number when he needs help.
“A lot of the times that were 911 calls, he just wanted somebody to talk to,” Kapusta said. Instead of responding to those 138 calls, the agency can respond to more urgent calls, he added.
Another BHIT responsibility is making contact with every nonfatal overdose victim within 24 hours of an incident.
Only about a third of those victims have expressed interest in rehabilitation services, Kapusta said, as most either refuse to speak to the unit or refuse to admit to having a drug problem.
But, 53 people, so far, have willingly gone into rehab as a result of BHIT’s intervention, Kapusta said.
“It’s a drop in the bucket to the overall drug epidemic,” he said, “but those are 53 people — it’s somebody’s mother, brother, sister, uncle— and when they come out of that and actually recovered, it’s like gaining that person back. Just that is worth the effort.”
That unit also works with the county’s homeless coalition and the St. Vincent De Paul Society to assist the homeless population. Often, besides lacking housing, they also have substance abuse or mental illness issues.
The unit helps connect them with stable living environments and resources to work through other issues, with the goal of helping to “get them to where they’re contributing members of society,” said Kapusta.
Social workers respond to calls
In St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg Police Department plans to integrate about 25 social workers into its agency by January, in an initiative it calls its Community Assistant Liaison (CAL) program.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway explained that social workers gradually will be phased into the department’s operations and 911 response.
The agency’s social workers initially will ride with a uniformed officer to nonviolent or non-criminal mental health calls, then eventually they will respond to those calls themselves, without police assistance.
Instances where social workers might be dispatched include drug overdoses, mental health crisis, unarmed suicide threats, disorderly or truant juveniles, panhandling, homeless complaints and so on. A police officer, however, always will be dispatched to a violent or life-threatening situation.
The CAL program also incorporates more law enforcement de-escalation police training organized by mental health professionals and regular follow-ups with those individuals facing a mental health or social crisis from the agency’s staffed social workers “to make sure that person is getting the care that they need,” Holloway said.
Holloway said the program has been long-needed, considering the agency isn’t really equipped to effectively handle every type of mental health crisis.
Underscoring the point: Of the agency’s 575 sworn officers, about 30% have fewer than five years’ experience on the force, he said.
“We feel like this will be very helpful for us and very beneficial to our officers,” Holloway said. “The law enforcement officers have been dealing with this for years and years, but it’s time for us to put professionals out there so we can deal with people that are going through a mental crisis, so we can be able to help them.”
Holloway said the agency received about 12,000 calls last year where it would’ve been deemed appropriate to send a social worker out to a scene, rather than a uniformed officer.
“A lot of calls we saw were a lot of people going through those mental issues, where really they didn’t need a police officer, they needed someone to help them navigate through a system, and that’s what CAL is really about,” Holloway sad. “There is nothing criminal about it, it’s just someone that needs help.”
Working together for better outcomes
Such collaboration models between social workers and police has garnered support from clinicians and academia alike.
“It’s really reassuring to hear so many wonderful initiatives going on in the state, and the progress that’s being made,” said Jim Cowser, a licensed clinical social worker with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a national addiction treatment and advocacy organization headquartered in Minnesota.
Cowser reasoned, police ultimately see cost reductions via such initiatives, as they’re not forced to deploy expensive resources to a scene where it’s not warranted. Additionally, it also may reduce the need for arrests and reduce crime directly, by connecting a troubled individual with services, opposed to taking them into custody. He noted there’s “a significant relationship” between the motives or behaviors related to arrests and mental health and substance abuse issues.
By working together and cross-training with social workers, law enforcement agencies are “able to go out and more effectively handle a situation, and so all parties involved are better off,” he explained.
Dr. Lisa Rapp-McCall is a professor in Saint Leo’s Graduate Social Work Department and a research associate in the Maribeth Durst Applied Research Institute.
She likewise summarized the benefits on having police and social workers team under the same roof, in some form or fashion.
“We’re all on the same page with regards to wanting everyone to stay safe,” Rapp-McCall said. “We want to steer people with mental health problems into that system, as opposed to the criminal justice system, where it’s costly and not always as helpful to them.
“I think that social workers and police have already been working with the same individuals, just in different places, so why not harness our professional skillsets and work together to make this a little bit better system?”
Rapp-McCall detailed how law enforcement can use methods to involve social workers, in addition to co-responding and de-escalation training models.
Some agencies nationwide have called on social workers to accompany officers when they deliver death notifications. Others have leveraged them to attend court services with victims to provide comfort and support. Another opportunity is utilizing social workers for community outreach, whether it’s hosting public seminars on opioid use, human trafficking, parenting skills and so on.
Rapp-McCall’s shared findings from research and interviews on police departments incorporating social workers, too.
Results showed a decrease in injuries, involuntary hospitalization, detentions, arrests, and time on calls, which she said “all helped reduce costs of the entire criminal justice system, as well as the agency.”
Additionally, implemented police-social worker models led to an increased engagement in services for citizens involved, and an improved view of law enforcement by citizens. Also, Rapp-McCall noted law enforcement “overwhelmingly” found social workers to be helpful in agency operations.
Police consolidation on the way?
The United States has roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies. About three quarters of those have less than 25 sworn officers.
The possible paradigm shift — with more social workers partnering law enforcements agencies — combined with more national standards and requirements, could result in smaller police departments consolidating with others, across the country.
And, that may not necessarily be a bad thing, said Phil Kapusta, future operations bureau chief with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. He explained that “smaller departments don’t necessarily have the same resources and can’t dedicate a certain percentage to behavioral health.”
“The U.S. has a long tradition against centralized police,” Kapusta added, “but going forward, we definitely think there’ll be a consolidation of those (smaller agencies).”
However it shakes out, he said he’s willing to see more law enforcement agencies utilize social workers, among other ways to tackle mental health issues in respective communities.
“Law enforcement, for better or worse, kind of in this country has become one of the mental health providers of last resort,” he said, “and we will be happy to pass a lot of those responsibilities on, but you need the system architecture, so that there are mental health professionals who will show up at 2 o’ clock on a Sunday morning and work with us, as long as it’s safe.”
Published November 04, 2020