The St. Petersburg Police Department plans to send community and social service professionals instead of uniformed police officers on some non-violent calls for service, beginning Oct. 1.
“Our citizens are asking for change. The city of St. Petersburg and the police department are ready for that change,” Chief Anthony Holloway said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.
The police department will give up a $3.125 million federal grant awarded last month to pay for hiring 25 new officers over the next two years. The department will use $3.8 million in city funds that had been earmarked to match the grant to instead retain a social service agency to respond to non-violent calls for service from the public.
The shift in St. Petersburg police response follows several weeks of national and local protests calling for police reforms, in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The news conference at the St. Petersburg Police Department announcing the change in response to non-violent calls capped a day of talks about policing in St. Petersburg, including an earlier discussion during a City Council meeting about plans to issue citations and fines to demonstrators who block traffic.
Since the Floyd killing, St. Petersburg police have had several talks with faith leaders, community groups and protestors, as well as the police union, Holloway said. All agreed on the common goal of changing the way police respond, he said.
The St. Petersburg Police Department will create a new division, named CAL, which stands for Community Assistance Liaison. It will be housed within the police department and under the supervision of Assistant Chief Antonio Gilliam. The CAL team members will be in plainclothes and will not be armed, Holloway said. They will respond to nearly a dozen types of non-violent calls for service, including mental health and suicide crisis, intoxicated persons and drug overdoses, disorderly juveniles, panhandling, homeless complaints and neighborhood disputes.
Holloway expects about 18 to 20 people will be on the CAL team, and they will work from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. The police department will evaluate if the new approach is successful after monitoring it for a year.
With the CAL team handling non-violent calls, uniformed officers will have more time to walk in the community and build relationships.
The new division is one of several changes Holloway outlined. He also plans to beef up training for officers to learn how to de-escalate threatening situations and how to avoid the use of their weapons.
The department will evaluate all its equipment, from body cameras to gun belts, and it also will review policies, including its use of force policy and policies designed to prevent racial profiling, as well as monitoring calls for service.
“Believe it or not, we still get some calls about, ‘There’s an African American male sitting in the park. He doesn’t look like us,’” Holloway said. “We’re not coming to those calls. If that person hasn’t committed a crime, we’re not going there.”
Jonathan Vazquez, president of the Sun Coast Florida Police Benevolent Association, said the organization supports the plans Holloway outlined.
“Every police officer, community leader and citizen I’ve spoken to agrees it’s time for law enforcement to refocus,” Vazquez said. “On crime reduction and neighborhood safety, it is time to allow the experts in the field of social services more involvement in these incidents.”
Mayor Rick Kriseman called the move an effort to “reimagine the police department,” and both Holloway and Kriseman said they want to work with the community to move forward with the changes.
“I’m inviting protest leaders to join us for a facilitated exchange of ideas concerns and plans for the continued improvement that we all seek. I hope they will accept our invitation because public servants must never stop listening and learning. It’s the only way to lead,” Kriseman said. “Let’s talk to each other, let’s listen to each other and then let’s turn our exchange into action.”
A date for the community discussion Kriseman described has not yet been set.
St. Petersburg City Council members earlier Thursday discussed holding their own meeting with demonstrators after hearing from about a dozen people who called in to the online meeting, many of them raising concerns about an announcement on Tuesday that St. Petersburg officers would be enforcing pedestrian traffic rules and issuing citations that come with a $62.50 fine for protestors who hinder traffic.
“When will Black lives begin to matter here in St. Petersburg?“ said Terron Gland, who has been one of the leaders of the protests. “We have been out here protesting for days and days … Every day that we go on, your silence is compliance, which means that you agree with everything that’s going on in the city and you are not doing anything about it.”
Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin told the protestors who called in to the council meeting “we hear you,” and Kriseman said the city’s concern was for safety for both protestors and community members. Kriseman asked City Council members to hold off on their own action until he has a chance to set up a community discussion.
“This is the first time we’ve heard from administration on this,” said Council Chairman Ed Montanari after the afternoon news conference at the police department. “I want to speak with the mayor and see what the possibilities are. If we could have one group meet with all the elected officials that would be my preference, but some city council members may want to go in another direction and it’s the will of the body.”