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Emergency intervention program receives $5 million

Mark Parker

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Social workers with the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services' (JFCS) Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program take notes in the field. Photos provided.

An innovative program reimagining how St. Petersburg police respond to noncriminal and nonviolent emergency calls will continue into the foreseeable future due to its resounding success.

City council members unanimously approved a three-year, $5 million extension of the Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) initiative at Thursday’s meeting. That ensures trained mental health professionals, rather than police officers, will respond to personal crisis emergencies through Sept. 30, 2026.

The program is a unique partnership between its operator, Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS), and the St. Petersburg Police Department. It began as a pilot in January 2021 following a summer of social unrest.

Megan McGee, assistant director of administrative services for the SPPD, said CALL now serves as a national and international model.

After providing data supporting CALL’s impact, she told the council that “the best way to highlight the success is through the words of our neighbors, our friends and co-workers.”

Here is a sample from the over 4,300 positive responses:

“CALL was a game-changer for my recovery. People who are equipped to deal with mental health issues are able to respond to me. I hope programs like this spread across the country.”

“My brother was admitted to a mental health facility. The only bright spot was your navigator. She worked as hard as I did to get him what we needed.”

“I witnessed one of these calls while I was at work. The CALL team did a wonderful job. They arrived and de-escalated the situation, and they helped the person with the mental crisis.”

The CALL program is approaching the 10,000 contacts milestone.

McGee said CALL has changed local lives for 912 days due to the council’s support. In addition to emergency dispatch referrals, JFCS operates a continuous crisis line to provide client resources.

McGee said the program is approaching the 10,000 contacts milestone.

The $5 million allotment represents a drastic increase from the pilot’s $850,000. However, city officials have spent $3.39 million establishing the program.

McGee said the funding increase allows JCFS to hire additional staff and extend operations from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. throughout the week. She noted that 80% of the “live” referrals involve mental health issues.

“They involve clients of all ages … all over the city,” McGee added. “People actually request the CALL team now when they contact emergency services.”

Social workers and mental health professionals respond to over 91% of calls without a police presence, and 86% of contacts attend follow-up sessions and appointments. McGee said the program diverts 93% of clients from crisis units, hospitalization or jail.

The Council of State Governments asked Police Chief Anthony Holloway to serve on its national Expanding First Response Commission. The CALL program received additional recognition and a substantial grant from the National Football League’s Inspire Change Initiative, which McGee said funded a youth engagement specialist.

She said the International Crisis Intervention Team would highlight CALL’s “success and equitable implementation” at its annual conference in Detroit next week.

Councilmember John Muhammad said the CALL program stemmed from protests in 2020 calling for change in policing tactics. Photo by Mark Parker.

“I think it’s a great example of how advocacy and organizing, when it meets with responsive leadership and responsive government, can actually make some changes to our community that improves the quality of life for everyone,” said Councilmember John Muhammad.

While the pilot program began in January 2021, Muhammad traced its beginnings to the summer of 2020. Hundreds of people repeatedly took to St. Petersburg streets to protest the George Floyd murder and other police brutality incidents.

Local leaders gathered to discuss how to end the unrest, and Muhammad said the conversation quickly changed to how they could ensure public safety while allowing peaceful protests. He explained that those discussions led to others regarding reimagining community policing.

Muhammad noted that was during the “defund the police” era. He credited Holloway and JFCS for embracing the initiative and called it a “silver lining” for advocates.

Councilmember Ed Montanari called public safety “job number one” in St. Petersburg. He said the program is a tool that allows officers to focus on criminals.

He also sought to clarify that the city’s police force has grown from 575 to 602 sworn officers since the program’s implementation. “We continue to increase our police budget every year,” Montanari added. “We do not go there.”

McGee explained that the program’s navigators respond to mental health, substance abuse, neighborly disputes and youth-related calls. They do not contact people who disclose they have a weapon.

She said program officials will pivot according to the situation, and officers will often secure a scene before allowing CALL to assist.

“We’re able to have an appropriate behavioral health response for our citizens in St. Pete, and we also have a strong police force,” McGee said. “We have both.”

 

 

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