LARGO — Police departments across the country have been under increased scrutiny and some critics have called for their funding to be reallocated for social services.
Largo instead is taking a slightly different path by both increasing its department’s budget by roughly 14% — up to more than $29.1 million — and forging ahead with programs that utilize social workers.
That increase includes $441,900 to add three new officers, which is the result of a public safety staffing plan that was initiated four years ago.
Chief Jeff Undestad told city commissioners July 10 during a budget work session that the department aims to continue its partnership with local nonprofit Directions for Living for its Enriching Lives through Mental Health Services program, which teams up an officer with a licensed clinician to help those facing a mental health crisis.
“That unit and team has been working really hard and doing a wonderful job,” Undestad said.
The department also will continue its homeless street outreach team, which pairs an officer with a case worker to address homeless-related issues.
Undestad said that unit has only been functioning for about two weeks but it’s already seeing positive results.
“But getting that partnership with the police officer and the civilian personnel to go out there and help with those folks, I think is really making a huge difference and impact in us being able to reach out to that portion of the community and provide that help,” he said.
The two outreach programs cost $132,000.
Commissioner Michael Smith asked Undestad what he thought of the St. Petersburg Police Department’s new Community Assistant Liaison program, which would lead to unarmed social workers responding to certain nonviolent calls such as overdoses, homelessness, and those facing a mental health crisis or are suicidal.
Undestad said he doesn’t think his department is ready to make that big a leap yet.
“I do think we’ve already taken some steps prior to that with our mental health and our homeless initiatives,” he said. “I feel and believe that, looking at that list of some of the calls a civilian would go on, I think they warrant some type of police presence. Some of these calls could turn violent and often do. So, sending an unarmed civilian might be challenging.”
Commissioner John Carroll, a former Largo police chief, applauded St. Pete’s initiative, but echoed Undestad’s concerns.
“I can tell you from experience that oftentimes it’s those minor calls, those quality-of-life-type calls that result in someone getting hurt,” he said, adding that the LPD already uses a variety of volunteers and city employees to do some nonemergency calls.
“But I’d be very, very careful about some of the stuff I saw on the list.”
Undestad did say, however, that the department would continue to look into new ways of delivering service.
“We probably have some other opportunities to look at what positions might be better suited as civilianized or at least partnered up with a police officer to provide that service to the community,” he said.