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City Council renews CALL program after successful pilot

Mark Parker

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Terri Balliet, COO of CALL, speaks with city council.

St. Petersburg City Council unanimously agreed to renew the Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program after it exceeded expectations and goals during its pilot.

On January 9, the CALL program launched through the Gulf Coast JFCS in partnership with the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD), where a team of clinical staff and community navigators can be dispatched to non-violent, non-criminal calls. Emergency dispatchers can now send social workers to certain calls for service – including mental health crises, suicide intervention, truancy, homeless complaints, and neighborhood disputes. At a recent city council meeting, Terri Balliet, Chief Operating Officer of CALL, gave a presentation highlighting how the experimental program has surpassed expectations and alleviated previous concerns.

After six months of being fully staffed and providing a full schedule, the goal was for CALL to respond to 80% of assigned calls without being accompanied by an officer. As of August 1, CALL is responding to 93% of contacts independently. Many people had concerns for the safety of the social workers responding to these calls alone. However, as Councilmember Robert Blackmon pointed out, those fears are so far unfounded.

“The number that really popped out to me was 3,000 contacts with no safety concerns,” said Blackmon. “I know that was a huge concern – certainly of mine, but also with a lot of the public and some of my colleagues.”

The goal for a CALL response resulting in a diversion from a crisis unit, hospital, or police response was set at 50%. Six months into the pilot, 73% of eligible calls were not Baker Acted or voluntarily hospitalized, and a law enforcement response was avoided entirely. If a client is Baker Acted – involuntarily hospitalized for up to 72 hours – or is under the influence or a danger to themselves or others, a police response is still necessary.

Balliet told the story of a client who contacted SPPD 110 times in a week in early May. “If the CALL program was not in existence, that officer would have had to be dispatched to this client, this individual, 110 times,” she said. “They wouldn’t have been out on the street fighting crime.” A CALL Program Director was able to build a rapport with the client, and in partnership with Suncoast Center for Mental Health, they were able to properly diagnose the individual and provide treatment. Her mental health has improved, and for the week ending June 3, she only called SPPD three times.

“We reduced the calls by 97%,” said Balliet. “That’s significant.”

CALL works closely with several community partners. Balliet said, “We recognize we couldn’t do it alone.” Gulf Coast JFCS and its other local behavioral health service providers receive state funding through Central Florida Behavioral Health Network for indigent clients. Therefore, the programs do not charge one another for treating and assisting with joint clients.

When Phase 1 of the program began in February 2021, CALL team members embedded with the Police Assisting The Homeless (PATH) unit to experience the types of calls they would go on and the individuals they would interact with. In April, the CALL team started to lead the response with an officer in the vicinity or as needed. By May, the pilot entered Phase 3, and the team began responding directly to calls, so far without any negative incidents.

CALL teams respond to incidents in pairs and use their own vehicles. The vehicle is stocked with supplies for clients – including blankets, non-perishable food, hygiene items, and first aid kits. The SPPD communication center stays aware of CALL responses in the area through specialized software. Officers are available and ready to assist if needed, and CALL team members do not respond to criminal complaints.

Officers also reach out to CALL for assistance, as Balliet noted in another story highlighting the utility of the program. Balliet said just a week before, an officer asked for a navigator’s assistance to sit with a person at St. Anthony’s hospital. The individual was held under the Baker Act and was under the influence, and the navigator quickly responded to relieve the officer. The navigator waited with the patient for 10 hours before they could be treated.

“If CALL wasn’t in place, that officer would have been sitting with that individual for 10 hours and not fighting crime,” said Balliet.

Balliet sought the city council’s approval to renew the CALL program, along with a slight increase in the budget for a new position, a cost of living raise, and some new equipment. Councilmembers unanimously approved.

“Given the benefits and results that we have seen and heard today, I think the program cost is absolutely, completely reasonable,” said Councilmember Darden Rice. “I think it’s an investment in the people in our community.”

 

 

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1 Comment

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    Rita Sewell

    August 23, 2021at6:01 pm

    What good news for individuals and the whole community. Our police department benefits too. May we continue to seek positive and compassionate solutions in our city.

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