In January, together with the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, the St. Petersburg Police Department launched a program called, CALL, an acronym that stands for Community Assistance and Life Liaison. Today (May 13) marks the pilot program’s first one hundred days, and the community response has been so extraordinary that both organizations hope that CALL will be a permanent response to helping citizens in crisis.
The SPPD long ago recognized the need for a program like CALL, which dispatches professional social workers to scenes in which citizens are suffering from mental health, quality of life issues as well as homelessness. On a distinguished panel of CALL’s leadership board, Chief Anthony Holloway spoke about his prior-to-CALL’s-creation concern that police officers are often neither equipped nor trained to tackle many of the community’s mental health needs. “We see this as a need for our community,” Holloway said.
The city council approved the CALL team contract in early January 2021 and since then, the team has responded to more than 1,000 citizens in need.
Social worker Travis Atchison spoke of an incident he responded to at a Marathon gas station on 34th street. When he arrived at the scene, a “belligerent, upset and agitated” man was surrounded by several first responders. Travis managed to pull the man away from the well-intentioned officers and asked the man to focus on his breathing. After the man calmed down, Travis drove him to the hospital to get him real help. He described that night as a “really cool intervention,” and was able to highlight how effective a trained social worker can be in de-escalating a potentially volcanic situation.
The police department has taken a step back, shifting their focus instead to violence and criminality thus giving CALL more than 280 referrals. The message from the SPPD is that they don’t want to take anyone to jail – they want to help.
Terri Balliet, the Chief Operating Officer of JFCS, is hopeful that more communities can take a page from St. Petersburg’s book. The collaboration and fellowship between the police department and social workers has thus far been incredibly beneficial to the St. Petersburg community, and the model is one that could be imitated throughout the country.