Tampa City Council to vote on continued funding for mental health co-responder program

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Tampa Police Chief logo. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (8 July 2016).

Last year, the Tampa Police Department launched a one-year pilot program that pairs police officers with mental health professionals to respond to mental health crisis calls in the city.

That mental health co-responder pilot program expired on September 30, 2022. But on Thursday, Tampa City Council could vote to approve a resolution that would help keep the program alive.

The Tampa Police Department wants to extend the life of the program, now referred to as the department’s Behavioral Health Unit. Fully operational since last November, police officers and clinicians within the unit respond to mental health-related calls that come into the city’s emergency call center in teams of two. They also follow up with those they make contact with after the fact to connect them with local mental health treatment providers.

“Our number one goal is to link people in crisis with the appropriate services,” Tampa Police Lieutenant Samuel Rojka told Tampa City Council of the unit last July. “That’s probably one of the number one challenges we have, is getting people connected in a timely fashion to the services that they need.”

From January to March 23, 2022 alone, the unit responded to 222 mental health-related calls, Tampa police chief Mary O’Connor told Tampa City Council during a public safety presentation in March.

During a reflection on her first 100 days as head of the Tampa Police Department in May, O’Connor said the unit had helped reduce the number of Baker acts in the city by more than 154, in reference to Florida’s Baker Act.

“That number means something,” she said. “That’s 154 people that did not end up in a crisis situation that led to hospitalization and commitment.”

Under Florida’s Baker Act, a person believed to be at acute risk of harming themselves or another person can be involuntarily held in a mental health treatment center for up to 72 hours, until they can be examined by a qualified psychiatrist.

Being “Baker Acted,” can be a traumatic experience, if deemed necessary at times to ensure the safety of someone who poses an acute risk to themselves, or is threatening to seriously harm others.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tampa Bay region saw a surge in residents seeking help for anxiety and depression — with compounding public health, housing, employment, and personal issues exacerbating new or emerging struggles with mental health.

Compared to a police officer, who is traditionally tasked with responding to emergency calls, both clinical and law enforcement experts say a clinician with years of mental health education is more qualified to help someone who is experiencing a mental health emergency.

According to the Vera Institute, a national organization that advocates for non-police crisis responder programs, police officers are often ill-equipped to safely handle situations of acute mental distress. Even in a city like Tampa, where all sworn officers receive 40 hours of mandatory crisis intervention training.

In the worst of cases, ill-informed interactions can be deadly. Last year, at least 101 people in the United States were killed after police responded to a person “behaving erratically or having a mental health crisis.”

Co-responder programs, like that in Tampa, as well as non-police responder programs, like a crisis worker-led program in St. Petersburg, scaled up in cities across the nation after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, amid calls for defunding the police and criminal justice reform.

“A lot of people end up with criminal charges because they’re in a mental health crisis,” Demetrius Williams, a crisis responder for St. Petersburg’s Community Assistance Life and Liaison (CALL) program, told the Vera Institute in April. “A call for help turns into battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest, or aggravated assault.”

Will Tampa’s program survive?

Tampa’s Behavioral Health Unit, controversial among some community activists who are critical of TPD, needs the city to approve additional funding in order to keep the unit operational.

On Thursday, Tampa City Council will be voting on a resolution to reimburse half the salaries of the Behavioral Health Unit’s case managers — or, up to $33,000 each, annually.

Those case managers, who provide follow-up care for those reached by the unit’s dispatch teams, are employed by or contracted through three behavioral healthcare providers — the Agency for Community Treatment Services (ACTS), Gracepoint, and Northside Behavioral Health.

The behavioral healthcare providers will foot the bill for the other half of the case managers’ salaries. WMNF reached out to the Tampa Police Department to get clarification on how many case managers are currently working for the unit, but they did not respond to our request for comment.

The resolution up for a vote, unlike the one before it, does not allocate funding to pay the unit’s clinicians, who earn an annual starting salary of $75,000. Clinicians are the mental health workers who respond to calls with police.

Instead, moving forward, the resolution states that clinicians “will be hired by Tampa Police Department and incorporated into the BHU, rather than through Acts [the Agency for Community Treatment Services].”

In total, the resolution asks for Tampa City Council to approve $209,130 dollars over the next two years, for the fiscal years 2023-24, subject to annual appropriations. That’s less than half of the budget of $488,680 that was allocated for the unit in FY2022 alone, when clinician salaries were a consideration.

A program not without criticism

Not everyone’s pleased with the idea of continuing to fund the coresponder program. Angel D’Angelo, a member of the Restorative Justice Coalition, which is critical of TPD, told WMNF, “Creating and investing in coresponse programs, especially one that will now hire clinicians directly into TPD, is the complete opposite of what the people have been demanding since 2020.”

D’Angelo said Tampa residents of all demographics “overwhelmingly” echoed support for a crisis response program independent of the police department, similar to Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon, operated by the nonprofit White Bird Clinic.

That program, first launched in 1989, dispatches teams of medics and crisis workers to answer nonviolent, behavioral health crisis calls in the cities of Eugene and Springfield – both smaller than Tampa. The dispatch teams provide intervention, basic medical care, counseling, transportation, and referrals.

Operating 24/7, seven days a week, CAHOOTS responded to 16,479 calls in 2021, according to the Eugene Police Department. The White Bird Clinic says the program saves the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million annually.

“A similar program in Tampa is needed as our police continue to malign, harm and brutalize Black, Indigenous,  trans,  queer and disabled communities,” said D’Angelo, the Tampa activist. “These communities, and especially folks living in multiple identities, deserve a first response program ran with care and compassion, ran by people within marginalized communities, not handcuffs and guns ran by police chiefs and the City elite.”

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