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St. Pete Police will give up new officers, hire social workers for non-violent calls

Margie Manning

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St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, flanked by City Council members, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and Mayor Rick Kriseman

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.

Jonathan Vazquez, president of the Sun Coast Florida Police Benevolent Association

“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.”

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12 Comments
here we go

12 Comments

  1. Jennie Ibarguen

    Jennie Ibarguen

    July 9, 2020 at 4:02 pm

    I like the idea but I’m concerned about the fact that the people they will be responding to may well have a gun and or be very violent so I feel the community officer should be armed. Good intentions but I’m a bit skeptical.

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    Gloria Steele

    July 10, 2020 at 7:23 am

    So how will you know that a call will be nonviolent? How will you keep the “social service professionals” safe as they go into situations that are “nonviolent.” This doesn’t sound like a safe idea for the social service professionals or for the persons involved in the call. So when the city gets sued for sending someone in that isn’t ready for a nonviolent situation that goes bad, what then?

    This sounds like a bad idea that will not end well so most involved.

  3. Avatar

    mike storer

    July 10, 2020 at 11:13 am

    I would like to see the mayor respond to about a years worth of “non Violent” calls so he can REALLY get a sense of how the program is working. Now we all know this will not happen unless he is escorted by the SPPD.You can accomplish the same end result by a good community policing program.Listen to what “the protesters” have to say and act accordingly.what you are doing now is turning the city over to the protesters.Defund the people who are sworn to serve and protect…are you totally nuts?if I call SPPD for a house full of felons that are raising hell and have squatted next door there better be a uniformed officer showing up ..you people have totally caved and also the fine for holding up traffic do to safety issues is far less than it should be.

  4. Avatar

    Stephen Bell

    July 10, 2020 at 12:35 pm

    This is inexcusable pandering and appeasement. Before doing this, how about documenting cases that have occurred in St. Pete which indicate that a problem exists? If such problem does exist, address the individuals involved.

  5. Avatar

    Linda Adams

    July 10, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    What about the rest of the St. Pete residents? Protesting is one thing, blocking traffic is another! Harassing patrons on Beach Dr. and now trying to intimidate people at the new Pier? Protect your constituents!
    I would like to enjoy the city and all it has to offer!

  6. Avatar

    Lynn Proctor

    July 10, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    I have been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Pinellas for 30 years. I have worked extensively with mental health, home health, individual counseling and couples. I have worked in-patient on psychiatric crisis care units and substance abuse treatment programs. Even with all my experience and knowledge, I would never take a position that sent me out into situations where people either don’t know what they are doing or don’t care. Most “non-violent” issues are dangerous because people are unpredictable. The social worker has no protection. And it is likely that if circumstances are bad enough to call the police, the evaluation should first be handled by an armed police person who can THEN call a social worker/case worker for follow up. I understand that many need counseling, housing, sobriety, drug treatment and marital counseling. But that is long-term planning, not crisis response. People making this decision need to sit down with social workers and related personnel to get a real look at what they are planning. They are listening to protesters. But throwing social workers into the mix to free up the police does not address what the protesters are protesting about, which is police brutality and racism. How does hiring social workers address this? It doesn’t.

    • Avatar

      Jacqueline Vincent

      July 14, 2020 at 12:35 am

      Thank you so much for this sage wisdom from a place of unequivocal experience. My gut tells me that’s St Pete Police are creating a social experiment that will prove its honorable but misguided intentions rather quickly but unfortunately may result in a young frightened mother being beaten to death after attempting to get safety from those she is supposed to trust a or other tragic result. People are unpredictable and situations escalate in the field especially when drugs alcohol PTSD and financial stress are exacerbating emotions. This is a true travesty waiting to happen. Why wasn’t there expert discussion?

  7. Avatar

    Colton Petish

    July 10, 2020 at 9:56 pm

    Good. I love how it’s our city that will stop treating mental health and homeless like criminals 🙂

    • Avatar

      Frank Fasulo

      July 11, 2020 at 10:10 am

      It’s not good, they could hire both. The population of the city is going to grow; drug use and crime will increase. I see this decision as appeasement for the BLM movement, and to quell the rioting. It’s a rash decision that will have not do much to decrease crime, the city will need more properly trained police officers as well.

      • Avatar

        Mary Matero

        July 12, 2020 at 8:48 am

        I wonder what would have happened to the social workers who responded to a disturbance call in McAllen Texas yesterday. The 2 officers were met at the door with gunfire, they didn’t even have their weapons drawn, it was an ambush. May the officers RIP. There is no “routine call” in police work.

  8. Avatar

    Thom Bie

    July 11, 2020 at 10:10 pm

    This is going to be hilarious, like all post-European societies.
    Look to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Haiti for your future.

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