LARGO — Ever since the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, calls have grown louder to shift funding from police departments to social service programs that offer help to those in need. Safely helping people with mental health problems has been one of the biggest needs in Pinellas County, as agencies handle thousands of calls each year.
The Largo Police Department said it has been ahead of the curve in addressing those needs, and its efforts are paying off.
That was the message veteran Officer Albin Soto and his partner, social worker Tianna Audet, delivered to city commissioners July 14 when discussing the work of the department’s mental health unit titled Enriching Lives Through Mental Health Services, or ELMS.
The two-person unit that was established in October 2018 partnered Soto with Audet, a behavioral health navigator from nonprofit Directions for Living, to proactively engage with those who consistently call 911 for help and connect them with services they may need, such as psychological testing, therapy and case management.
“Essentially our job here is just to connect people with resources and support that are struggling with mental health in our community,” Soto said.
Soto said between June 2019 and January, the team has had 725 encounters and linked up about 147 clients with services.
Soto has been an officer for about 19 years in a variety of roles, including patrol officer, school resource officer, and sniper on the SWAT team, but he said the work he’s doing now has left a mark on him.
“I have to say this is the most rewarding year of my career with the things we’ve been able to do with the clients that we help,” he said. “… There’s a huge need for people to advocate for some of these people that don’t have anybody, and when we show up and they know that we’re there to help, we’re often greeted with tears. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard you’re a godsend, no one’s ever done this or that.”
For example, he pointed out the work he and Audet did to help a pregnant homeless heroin addict.
“She was actually on the verge of dying,” he said. “She didn’t realize she was septic and spent 56 days in the hospital getting treatment.”
Now, he said she’s doing well, and they check on her each week.
“She says we saved her life every time we go in there,” he said.
Largo isn’t the only agency that works with Directions for Living. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Clearwater Police Department also had previously established mental health units.
The St. Petersburg Police Department has taken it a step further, however, with its new Community Assistant Liaison program that will allow unarmed social workers to respond to certain nonviolent calls such as overdoses, homelessness, and those facing a mental health crisis or are suicidal.
In an email to Tampa Bay Newspapers, Soto, who is armed in the field, said an officer’s presence is actually beneficial to the process.
“Although, initially some clients might be apprehensive with a police officer knocking on their door,” he said. “Once they realize the officer is there to help and not take them to jail, rapport is easy to establish. The imposing authoritative figure that had the power to take away their freedom, now is championing for their cause and assistance. Once the client feels like the police officer is on their side, the apprehension is gone.”
Another goal of the unit has been to help alleviate the demand on the police department.
From 2016 to 2018, the LPD responded to more than 4,500 calls involving individuals with mental health problems. More than 1,300 of those calls ended with the person being involuntarily committed under the Baker Act.
Soto said the unit is making headway in reducing those numbers.
“We had one client that had 65 calls for service in one year and once we became involved we were kind of able to diminish some of that number to 12,” he said.
He added that there has been an 81% reduction in calls for service and about a 66% reduction in the number of Baker Acts among the top 20 individuals who require service.
Commissioner John Carroll, a former Largo police chief, said the unit proves the benefits of the department offering specialty services, such as school resource officers or the newly added homeless outreach unit that just started this past month.
“This is yet another example of the importance of having teams dedicated to certain types of calls so it’s not just a different officer each time showing up and starting from scratch. You guys develop a familiarity with people that are using your services,” he said.
“It’s also important for us to recognize the fact that this program’s been in existence now for two years, and this is not some program du jour to deal with the current situation nationally. You’ve been doing this for a while.”
Soto said there’s plenty of work to be done, noting that his voicemail is constantly full.
“There is more than enough work for just one person in this position,” he said.
That led Mayor Woody Brown to wonder what it would take to expand the program, which is funded by the city and county in combination with a federal grant.
In an email to Tampa Bay Newspapers, he added that the city is evaluating its need and options for doing more programs like this one.
“If you are able to get that person in a better place that they’re not in need of our services so often, it’s money well spent,” Brown said July 14. “And it’s compassionate and the right thing to do.”