Deputy chief heads to FBI academy

Largo Police Chief Jeff Undestad

LARGO – During the past two years, the Largo Police Department 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.

Police Chief Jeff Undestad thinks there’s a better way to deal with the flood of calls, which is why Largo’s Police and Community Development departments are teaming up with local nonprofit Directions for Living for a new program that aims to help those in need and reduce repetitive calls for service.

The proposed Enriching Lives through Mental Health Services program would partner an officer from the Problem Oriented Policing Unit with a behavioral health navigator from 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.

“I think we’ll be able to get ahead of the curve rather than being reactive,” Undestad told city commissioners during a June 12 work session at City Hall. “With a lot of these calls we can be more proactive and better serve the community and the mental health part of that along with reducing … some of the calls for service that are repetitive from these types of individuals that need some resources. So, I think this is a great opportunity and I look forward to and am excited for the partnership.”

Overcoming funding obstacles

Undestad said the program is something he has been pursuing for years, but the funding has never been available.

At the same time, Largo’s Housing Division began to hear more about an increase in crime and mental health issues as part of its public outreach during development of its annual Community Development Block Grant Action Plan.

“We reached out to the police department to see if there was a way our CDBG funding could help with what they were looking at doing for some mental health services to better serve the community,” said Arrow Woodard, a grant specialist with the Housing Division.

The nearly $30,000 in grant money combined with added funds from the public safety staffing plan, which will be adding officers the next fiscal year, meant the city could afford the nearly $60,000 annual cost to fund the program.

Navigating mental health

Another key to forming the program was the involvement of Directions for Living, a Clearwater-based nonprofit that provides child welfare, behavioral health and homeless services throughout the county. In the past few years, it also has partnered with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Clearwater Police Department on similar programs.

April Lott, president and CEO of Directions for Living, said she started getting involved with agencies several years ago because “the jail has become our largest mental health facility.”

Lott, who has also helped train hundreds of officers on how to handle people suffering from mental health problems, said officers who field the calls are left with few options.

They can either send them to jail, detain them under the Baker Act or leave them at home with no help, she said.

“Currently, right now today, every Baker Act bed is full in Pinellas County, and if we needed to Baker Act somebody, we would be either diverting them to a hospital or, if it’s a child, we are currently sending them out of county,” Lott said, adding that the Baker Act is only for 72 hours and does not include treatment. “We have no more beds. So this initiative with Largo, with Pinellas County Sheriff’s department and with Clearwater Police Department really was in an effort to try to get ahead … of some of these calls for service that are labor intensive for law enforcement.”

Lott said the behavioral health navigator would perform the assessment on the scene and then do what is necessary to get that individual connected to services.

If the person is unwilling, the navigator can put them on a high-call list and circle back to check on them later, which would hopefully reduce unnecessary 911 calls.

In fact, data collected by the LPD showed that the same 15 people with mental health concerns made 731 calls in 2017.

“Our hope really is that we would not only reduce calls for service to law enforcement but that we would get these individuals connected to the behavioral health services that they need to live safely and stably in their community,” she said.

City Manager Henry Schubert added that he thinks the efforts could also ultimately have a positive impact on fire calls and code enforcement.

Making a difference

Lott said the program has yielded impressive results thus far.

“In Clearwater, the calls for service from the same residence from the same individual has gone down 55 percent, because we are connected to that individual,” she said.

Commissioner John Carroll, a former Largo police chief, said follow-up will be the key to success and that whatever money the city spends on the program will be well worth it if it saves lives.

“Recurring situations at the same address or with the same individual by different responding officers always have the potential to end in a deadly force situation without this kind of training, without this kind of intervention,” he said.

Undestad said he hopes to get officers trained and ready to go sometime between October and December.