As the demand for mental health services in Pinellas County continues to rise, Police Chief Jeff Undestad hopes to create a new unit that will answer the call. Whether the city will have the funds or staffing to make that unit a reality is still uncertain.

That is why Undestad applied for a U.S. Department of Justice grant last month to help hire new officers and then shift three experienced officers to a Problem Oriented Policing team focused on reaching individuals with mental health problems before they get to a crisis point.

“If they get a different cop each time, then that officer is probably not going to be effective in helping that individual,” he said. “And, unfortunately at that point, we are getting them when they are in crisis mode rather than catching them before and making sure they are heading in the right direction and watched and helped and taken care of a little bit better.”

After hearing about different programs at a conference of police chiefs last fall, Undestad said he felt this was a good time to put a plan in place.

“I think it’s a very worthy cause and program and clearly effective because other agencies are doing the same thing,” Undestad said. “I think we’ve recognized there’s a need for it in Pinellas County.”

More than 10,000 people were detained in Pinellas County last year under the Baker Act, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, which is why the Sheriff’s Office established a case management program in November to cut down on the number of arrests. The program pairs two deputies with two licensed social workers who evaluate individuals on the scene and direct them to the right services.

In June, the Clearwater Police Department launched a similar program that teamed an officer with a mental health counselor from Directions for Living, an organization that offers behavioral health services for adults and children.

Undestad said he would eventually like to take the program in a similar direction, but it would likely begin by mirroring the responsibilities of the LPD’s senior services program, which features a specially trained officer who focuses on outreach and helps the elderly find the services they need.

Undestad said the unit would consist of senior officers who have undergone 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training, which includes lessons from mental health professionals and scenario-based training. Undestad said he has the goal of putting every officer through the course.

Undestad said the unit would also aim to identify individuals who repeatedly need assistance and put them on a regular checklist so officers can prevent them from reaching a crisis point.

Finding funding

Several obstacles lie in the way, however, including a lack of funds to hire more officers.

The LPD is budgeted for 148 officers, but currently only has 134 on duty, five of which are on the POP team.

Also, because of a lack of revenue, city officials have proposed adjusting the public safety staffing plan and extending it by two years. So, instead of adding three police officers every year, officials have staggered the increases and are adding either an officer or firefighter every year.

The shortfalls led Undestad to file for the grant, which would provide up to 75 percent of the entry-level salary and benefits of a new officer. The grant is capped at $125,000 per officer over the course of three years, and requires the city to retain and pay all of the costs for the officer for a fourth year.

City Commissioner Curtis Holmes said applying for the grant and funding police hirings are well worth it.

“Largo Police Department is proactive,” he said during a meeting June 20. “When you are going to have proactive policing, it takes personnel. The question becomes, what’s more expensive? Having a few extra police officers on the street or having your house broken into.”

Undestad said the city will learn if it receives the grant sometime in September, but he applied for it last year and was denied.

Either way, he said the mental health unit will eventually become a reality.

“It’s just a matter of when we’ll get an opportunity to do it,” he said. “If I get the grant, I can do it a lot earlier. If I don’t get the grant, it may take me another couple of years to get that done.”