(NewsNation) — Police in St. Petersburg, Florida, received a call in May about a woman who was acting “bizarre,” in the words of a caller. But instead of dispatching police to check on her, the city sent a team of mental health workers from the Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program.
They noticed warning signs and confirmed that she was a victim of human trafficking. CALL staff arranged for her to find a place to stay and contacted her family to come and get her.
The woman is one of thousands who have been helped by the CALL program, an initiative launched in February 2021 to divert certain calls away from police to unarmed mental health staff.
Megan McGee, the special projects director for the St. Petersburg Police Department, said the CALL program was created following the nationwide police reform protests in the summer of 2020.
“Mayor Rick Kriseman, who was our mayor at the time, and our Chief of Police Anthony Holloway are both very, very progressive,” McGee said. “They really wanted to listen to what the community was asking for.”
While designing CALL, St. Petersburg officials looked at other cities in America that implemented programs using mental health professionals to respond to some calls. While they considered the co-responder model — where mental health workers respond to calls alongside police — they ultimately wanted to implement a program that allows calls to be completely diverted from law enforcement altogether.
After a competitive procurement process, the city chose Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, a local nonprofit that specializes in behavioral health, to build a CALL team composed of social workers, mental health professionals and others who have experience working with vulnerable populations. That team responds to live 911 calls that are diverted to their staff as well as officer referrals.
In addition to mental health crises, CALL also dispatches to substance-abuse-related calls, some calls related to homelessness, neighborhood disputes and some calls involving youth-related complaints like truancy.
CALL’s program manager Tianna Audet explained how the program works to serve the immediate needs of someone in crisis without arresting them and helps steer them towards ongoing help.
“Somebody is staggering in the middle of the road, instead of arresting them for public intoxication [we say] hey, do you want to get help?” Audet said. “We can bring you to detox. We can get you connected with those mental health services that you may need.”
As a new program, CALL doesn’t currently operate 24/7, running instead from 8 a.m. through midnight — expanding further would be contingent on more staffing and funding. But initial results suggest it has played a role in reducing police loads.
McGee estimated that 40% of the calls the police get that fall into CALL’s areas of responsibility are eventually handled by CALL employees. Since it launched in February 2021, the team has assisted more than 3,000 people.
She conceded that the overall volume of calls St. Petersburg Police get every year is over 500,000 — this means CALL is only handling a small fraction of requests and cannot replace police in most instances.
Nevertheless, there are signs the city may already be benefitting from the program. While suicide calls went up 60% in 2021, there was actually a 17% decrease in completed suicides.
“We can’t say it was just one thing, we can’t say it’s a direct correlation but…the implementation of this program when we were seeing such a huge influx of suicide threats, I can’t imagine how law enforcement would really be able to handle it on top of what they were doing,” McGee said.
One of the biggest challenges the program continues to face is that resources to help people who are in mental health crises continue to be limited.
“Of course, it comes down to money and insurance,” Audet said. “If you don’t have insurance, then you know, it’s usually X, Y, and Z facilities that take the uninsured and there’s wait lists. The quality of mental health, it’s not the greatest, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I know some case managers who have over 60 people on their caseload but only work 40 hours a week.”
Still, the CALL Program has been able to make real differences in the lives of people. Audet described a recent case where a mother with four kids moved to the area to live with her boyfriend. But the boyfriend kicked them out, and the family of five were living in their car.
“She had absolutely no money,” Audet said. “Her family had no money to get her back home to Texas. So we were able to use our funds to get her gas gift cards to drive her vehicle back to Texas. She has since then been reunited with her family.”