St. Petersburg: Starting in October, police will no longer respond to “non-violent” 911 calls (someone else will)

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ST. PETERSBURG, FL – Beginning Oct. 1, St. Petersburg police will no longer respond to “non-violent” 911 calls.

Within the police department will be a new division known as CAL, the Community Assistance Liaison.  According to a press release from the SPPD, a member of the CAL team will respond to the following issues:

  • Disorderly intoxication
  • Drug overdose
  • Intoxicated person
  • Mental health crisis
  • Suicide crisis
  • Mental Health Transport
  • Disorderly juvenile/truancy
  • Disorderly Juvenile at Elementary Schools
  • Panhandling
  • Homeless complaints
  • Neighborhood dispute

In 2019, such calls amounted to 12,700 out of 259,800, or approximately 5% of total calls for service for St. Petersburg.

According to what Police Chief Anthony Holloway said during a recent press conference, the funding for the CAL will come from two sources originally intended for the police department. 

Holloway explained that $3.1 million in federal grant money, originally intended to be used in hiring 25 new police officers, will be used for the new team. 

In addition, he stated that $3.8 million from the city that had been earmarked for the police department will be used for the new program.

The impetus for the formation of the CAL, as well as other changes to policies and procedures, came from conversations with faith leaders, protesters, community organizations, and the police union since the death of George Floyd.

Holloway said:

“Now after all those conversations, we had one common goal, and that common goal is very simple.  Our citizens is asking for change.  The city of St. Petersburg and the police department is ready for that change.” 

Holloway explained the rationale for the diverting of the types of calls listed above, saying,

“When a police officer responds to these calls, these are non-violent calls.  These are calls that people are asking for help.  Our police department is very young, the average age is about 25, and some of these men and women don’t even have kids at home, but we’re asked sometimes to help someone raise their kids. 

“We’re sometimes asked someone -to help someone, that has a mental issue.  Yes, we go to a lot of training, but we don’t have enough training.  We’re not experts in that.”

Holloway noted that CAL would be comprised of 18-20 people, operating in shifts from 6am to 2am, with three people per district.

It’s unknown who will respond to those calls mentioned above the other 4 hours a day.

It appears at this time that there is a plan for the organization, but no personnel. 

According to the Chief:

“What will happen is, when people call 911, hopefully effective October 1 when we find someone, that those groups will go to those calls.  They will go and assist those people that are in need.  And the best thing about that is, they’ll be able to follow up the next day with that child.” 

When asked about who would make up the CAL team, and whether it would be social workers, Holloway responded that there would need to be a search process:

“Well, first thing we’re going to do, we’re going to put an RFP out there so we can find an organization that can handle this type of call for service, and then they’ll be hiring the people, and we’re going to be giving them recommendation on what we’re looking for, 4 year degree, someone that has a background in mental health, because the issue that we’re talking about are mental health issues that need to be addressed.”

Holloway was asked about whether the decision not to hire the 25 planned additional officers would have adverse effects.  He called it a “huge sacrifice”  but referred back to the non-violent nature of the calls and the desires of the community.

He said:

“It’s going to be a big compromise, but again, the CAL unit is going to be handling these non-violent crimes. 

“If it gets to the point where the officers are responding to that, then that would be a conversation you’d have to have with the mayor again to see, this isn’t working, but we’re going to make this work, because this is what the community is asking for, this is the change that they are, part of the change that they’ve been wanting, this is the change that we’re going to give them.”

Regarding the safety of the CAL personnel, Holloway noted that they would be in plain clothes, with no gun or radio. 

When asked about self-protection in the event that a call turns violent, Holloway responded:

“Well again, we are asking for experts, so he or she should be an expert at de-escalation, so same thing the officers are trained in, so again, like someone, a panhandler is called in, that person is in need of some type of service.  If they do ask for an officer, an officer would respond to that.”

Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association president Jonathan Vazquez appears to view the change favorably, stating:

“We believe this will lead to decreased strain on our police resources, reduce risk to our member officers, and better outcomes to the most vulnerable citizens that we serve.”

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Meanwhile, Berkeley is considering placing unarmed, nonsworn personnel in charge of traffic enforcement.

City Council leaders are discussing a move which would end traffic enforcement of any kind by the police. 

The new plan moving forward would have unarmed employees from their public works division conduct the task.  The reasoning behind the plan is to decrease the public’s interactions with police.

Berkeley Councilman Rigel Robinson, the author of the new plan said:

“If we’re serious about transforming the country’s relationship with police, we have to start by taking on America’s most common interaction with law enforcement – traffic stops. 

“Driving while black shouldn’t be a crime.” 

The move also comes as the city council recently removed a large portion of funding from the police department.  Recently, the new budget cut  $9.2 million from the agency, a 12% reduction overall.  Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said the reduction was “a down payment on reimagining public safety in Berkeley.” 

During the council meeting when the budget was approved, the mayor said:

“The overwhelming message (from the public) is that we do need to defund the police and we need to reinvest money from our police department budget into other community priorities, including expanding mental health, outreach and treatment, services for our homeless, housing and services that specifically address the needs of our Black and brown communities.”

What was not specifically addressed is exactly how much the reduction in the police budget would affect the number of officers for the city. 

During a July 14th meeting, the city council will discuss exactly how the plan will work which would prohibit police from conducting “routine” traffic stops and pass that responsibility onto unarmed public works employees. 

Police would no longer be allowed to stop vehicles for any type of traffic infractions, starting next fiscal year. 

People who are in support of this point out deadly interactions between police and the people they pull over.  It appears that their belief is that the police, not the person who is pulled over, who are the reason the stop turns deadly. 

Darrell Owens, a co-executive of a local housing and transit activist organization said:

“There’s this cultural fear among Black people that it’s the traffic stop that’s going to get them killed.  Why does it always escalate into these violent situations?” 

 

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