Several community leaders came together Tuesday to discuss findings from an extensive analysis of St. Petersburg’s innovative Community Action and Life Liaison (CALL) program.
CALL is a collaboration between the city’s police department and Gulf Coast Jewish Family Community Services (GCJFCS). The initiative is unique, as it diverts nonviolent and noncriminal 911 calls and referrals to social workers – called community navigators – with no law enforcement presence.
Program and local leaders have touted CALL’s success since its pilot launched in 2021. The National Football League selected GCJFCS as one of only five recipients to receive funding and national recognition through its Inspire Change initiative.
Following two years of implementation, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg funded a study by the University of South Florida Center for Justice Research & Policy to determine if program results are equitable. While the concept’s viability is undeniable after 757 days, those findings were mixed.
“We’ve had no injuries, no incidents of violence,” said Melissa McGee, special projects manager for the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD). “We took this research extremely seriously and are making changes and improvements because every program needs to improve in ways.”
FHSP held the discussion at its Center for Health Equity. The goal was to highlight CALL’s successes, challenges and opportunities for improvement – particularly in its response to youth.
According to the report, SPPD responded to youth contacts at “substantially higher rates” than the CALL team. In addition, it noted that juvenile disorderly incidents are reported more often for minority youth in typically underserved areas.
Police Chief Anthony Holloway said community outrage following the death of George Floyd was one of the program’s catalysts. Carla Bristol, collaboration manager for the St. Pete Youth Farm, said she was one of the people marching for change and transparency.
As a Black woman watching over a son, daughter and several other young people she considers children, she possesses a unique perspective on police and youth interactions. She also realizes her relationship with the SPPD is much different than most community members, as she can call leadership directly.
Bristol relayed how one of her teens called the police department for help, and a community navigator failed to respond. The youth ended up in the back of a police car, and body camera footage was unavailable.
“So, today, I’m hearing all these success stories,” Bristol said. “But if I work with 15 teens and one of them had an experience – and it wasn’t this – I do simple deductive reasoning. What are all the other outcomes that I don’t know about?
“And so, the likelihood of that young person picking up the phone when they need help … has just been reduced.”
Community navigators responded to about 57% of noncriminal and proactive contacts, typically involving mental health issues, intoxication and drug overdoses. The 43% of noncriminal calls routed to SPPD do not include those outside the program’s service hours (midnight to 8 a.m.).
The report states that the SPPD was more likely to respond to neighborhood concerns, like panhandling. In addition, it found that CALL’s follow-up contacts were more common for white clients.
However, the report noted no sociodemographic – race, age or income – differences between SPPD and CALL responses. That indicates that community navigators are equally like to respond to areas with higher crime rates and service needs.
Dr. Sandra Braham, CEO of GCJFCS, said she remains concerned about youth outcomes noted in the study and prioritized increasing those services with the NFL’s funding.
“I’m not saying that we’re perfect and we’re flawless – that would not be the full truth,” Braham said. “We make mistakes, and we’re learning. But the goal is to have no closed doors.”
Holloway explained that dialing 911 became the answer to any societal problem. He said police departments accepted the challenge, but it soon became evident there were better organizations to handle many of those calls.
He credited Braham for stepping up and assuming some of those responsibilities when many people wanted to “get rid of the police.” He noted that a parent could call the SPPD for an unruly child, and they show up with a taser, gun and handcuffs.
“None of the stuff we have on our utility belts is to find out what the problem really is,” Holloway said. “And that’s what CALL does.”
For more information on the CALL program, visit the website here.
To read the technical analysis, visit the link here.