Amid nationwide protests and movements for widespread police reform, Pasco County is fortunate to receive considerable community support, said Pasco Sheriff District 2 Cpt. Joseph Irizarry during a breakfast meeting with the East Pasco Networking Group.
Protesters have been persistent, and sometimes violent, in calls for reform in the wake of multiple officer-involved shootings across U.S. cities, but Pasco deputies have felt appreciated by the “support that’s been pouring out of the community,” said Irizarry said, whose patrol division runs east of U. S. Highway 41 north to the Hernando County line, south to the Hillsborough County line, and east to Polk and Sumter counties.
“You know, you can’t go anywhere in Pasco County pretty much without getting ‘thank yous’ and someone offering to pay for my meal or to buy me a cup of coffee — so it’s greatly appreciated,” he told the group, gathered for the Aug. 25 breakfast meeting at the IHOP in Dade City. “Unfortunately, many other law enforcement agencies aren’t experiencing the same support that we experience here in Pasco County.”
The district 2 captain said the reelection of Sheriff Chris Nocco has helped the department stay focused on county issues. No one stepped forward to challenge the sheriff, in his bid for reelection.
Touching on the county’s more pressing issues, Irizarry said the agency has placed a significant emphasis on the issues of homelessness and mental health.
He applauded Nocco’s progressive approach in addressing community issues. For instance, the sheriff used grant money to form the Behavioral Health Intervention Team (BHIT) last year.
The unit, made up of 12 detectives, partners with local hospitals and mental health facilities to conduct frequent visitations and welfare checks. It also helps expedite referrals for behavioral health resources and criminal justice diversion programs for the county’s Baker Act repeats.
For example, an individual struggling with addiction may be referred to outpatient substance abuse treatment. Or, someone struggling financially might be referred to Pasco County’s Human Services department and the county’s homeless coalition.
Before the proactive program began, Irizarry said, the sheriff’s office would be called to a scene and make initial contact with someone who was in the midst of a mental health crisis — and that individual might be arrested or submitted for an involuntary mental health evaluation (Baker Act).
From there, it was left to others to address the problems.
But, the law enforcement agency discovered that many struggling people end up going back to square one — spiraling into their various issues, without knowing how or where to turn for help, he said.
“The sheriff kind of took the reins, ‘Hey, we’re going to create a unit, we’re going to be that ‘somebody else,’ and we’re going to follow up,” said Irizarry, who’s held various roles in his 20 years with the law enforcement agency, including patrol deputy, K-9 deputy, and vice and narcotics detective.
Meanwhile, the high-level officer noted that less than 20% of service calls are related to criminal complaints, so the majority of calls are related to non-criminal matters such as mental health and substance abuse problems, among others.
“A lot of our time is spent doing things other than arresting people and taking people to jail,” Irizarry said. “It’s trying to get people help, and use resources in the community or in the area.”
That seems more important than ever, as many individuals and families have been struggling through layoffs and furloughs due to COVID-19.
Recently, the sheriff’s office has been partnering with Feeding Tampa Bay to deliver hundreds of meals to families at the Pasco County Fairgrounds.
It’s about making the county “a better place for everybody to live,” the captain said.
“In this day and age with the pandemic, a lot of people are laid off, so they don’t have the money to pay the bills or pay the rent or pay for food…so there’s a lot of things that the sheriff’s office does to help the community.”
Published September 02, 2020