Sheriff tackles mental health issues with expanded program

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri talks about the expansion of a Mental Health Unit that he says will provide better outcomes.

LARGO — Too many people are being arrested or Baker Acted due to actions that are really symptoms of mental illness, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

Gualtieri said he is expanding his Mental Health Unit because those calls need to be handled differently.

Gualtieri announced his plans at a Sept. 23 press conference at the sheriff’s Administration Building in Largo.

The sheriff said law enforcement officers were doing a better job than in the past in recognizing that some individual’s actions are a symptom of mental illness. He said those acts people are committing aren’t “true criminal acts, they’re actually symptoms of mental illness.”

Over the past 20 years, work has been ongoing to provide mental health training to law enforcement officers so they can identify when someone is having a mental health crisis, assess them and then help them get the right services as opposed to arresting them, which was the way it had been done many years ago, Gualtieri said.

“However, trying to make cops mental health professionals is like trying to jam a round ball in a square hole,” he said. “It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit at all.”

The sheriff’s plan uses a co-response model in which a deputy and mental health professional work together “each in their own lane” for a better outcome.

Gualtieri said many people suffer from co-occurring disorders, which include mental health issues and addictions. The mental health community doesn’t have the resources to meet the need of all those people, he said.

According to the sheriff, Florida, which is the third largest state in the nation, is at the bottom in per capita funding for mental health. He said mental health services were a complex web of private entities delivery services funded by the state. The biggest void is a lack of a dedicated case management system.

Gualtieri said a dedicated system would ensure that a single case manager took ownership of an individual’s case management and treatments. People currently “bounce around” between providers without a clear objective toward solving the problem, he said.

“People bounce in and out of the mental health system and criminal justice system (jail) without anyone owning their problems through master case management,” Gualtieri said.

But a law enforcement officer is the least qualified person to deal with symptoms of mental health, he said.

“No doubt, cops over Baker Act. They’re not trained professionals to identify when a person really needs an involuntary exam or when they can remain at home with services,” Gualtieri said, adding that an arrest or Baker Act accomplishes nothing.

The Baker Act is a Florida law that provides emergency mental health services and temporary detention for people who are impaired because of their mental illness. It was named for Maxine Baker, former Miami State representative, who sponsored the act in 1972. It is intended to be used when a person is in danger of harming themselves or others.

Gualtieri said 200,000 Baker Acts are done each year in Florida with about 11,000 of them in Pinellas County. About 50% of the state’s Baker Acts are done by law enforcement. Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office responds to about 5,000 mental health calls a year. Some end in Baker Acts and some end in arrests, Gualtieri said.

Law enforcement officers only receive about 16 hours of mental health training at the Police Academy. Some go through Crisis Intervention Team training, which is a 40-hour course, with limited class availability and class size. About 25% of the sheriff’s 550 deputies are CIT trained. Others attend an 8-hour mental health first-aid class.

Some are calling for more mental health training for law enforcement. But Gualtieri questions whether it is realistic for cops to be doing mental health assessments and directing people to resources.

In 2016, Gualtieri started a Mental Health Unit using a co-response model of deputies and mental health professionals in a pilot area around Lealman. But the pilot was not successful.

The unit transitioned into more of a case management function. Deputies and mental health professionals no longer respond to active calls, but they follow up with people who are released from Baker Act facilities and others that would benefit from follow-up services.

The unit serves as a way to take case management to the streets to fill what the sheriff says is the biggest void. The unit serves about 160 individuals a month.

The next step was creation of the Pinellas County Integrated Care Alliance in 2018, which is a collaboration between the sheriff’s office, county government, county health department and Central Florida Behavioral Health Network. It has received some funding from Foundation for Healthy St. Petersburg and works with Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services (PEMHS), which is a Baker Act receiving facility.

The Alliance uses “PIC” teams with eight case managers to which deputies can refer individuals that need services. On any given day, about 70-90 people are receiving services from that team. Gualtieri said a recent analysis shows that program is working with clients functioning better and a decrease in the number of Baker Acts and arrests.

The new expansion of the Mental Health Unit will implement a true co-response model using the PIC team as the foundation. Instead of contracting mental health professionals, they will be sheriff’s employees. The unit will include six crisis response specialists and six deputies. Four will be response teams, which will respond to active calls, and two will be dedicated to providing follow-up services.

The mental health professionals provide the expertise to assess the needs and deputies provide the safety and security, Gualtieri said.

The work will begin as a pilot program most likely in an area between State Road 580 in north Clearwater and Park Boulevard. The unit will work 12 hours a day five days a week from noon to midnight.

If the $650,000 program proves successful, Gualtieri will consider expanding it. But he will need additional funding.

Gualtieri said the program had been in the works for a long time and he’s excited about it.

“We can treat people better and produce better outcomes while keeping them out of the jail and out of the Baker Act system, which is what this initiative seeks to do,” Gualtieri said. “We’re breaking the mold and we’re creating a different model and we must do that if we want a different result.”

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.