Florida Police Department to Send Social Workers to Non-Violent Calls

July 11, 2020 Updated: July 11, 2020

A police department in Florida is opting to send city employees to respond to 911 calls that don’t involve violence.

The employees will work for a new division within the St. Petersburg Police Department called the Community Assistance Liaison. It was described by the police department as “a social service agency.”

Starting Oct. 1, instead of sending a police officer, a member from the new agency will respond to a range of issues, including drug overdoses, suicide calls, and panhandling.

Homeless complaints, disorderly juvenile calls, and calls for an intoxicated person are among the other issues the unarmed social workers will respond to instead of armed officers.

“These are non-violent calls. These are calls that people are asking for help,” St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said at a press conference this week.

“What will happen is, when people call 911—hopefully effective Oct. 1, when we find someone—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.”

Holloway said the death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody death in Minneapolis on Memorial Day sparked discussions among officials on how to change the Florida department.

“Our common goal is very simple: our citizens are asking for change. The city of St. Petersburg, and the police department, is ready for that change.”

The liaison workers are being paid with funds that were previously allocated for hiring more police officers, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, said at the briefing.

police
Police cars in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Sept. 9, 2017. (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

The program will free officers to spend more time walking around communities, Kriseman said.

The new group will have 18 to 20 people who work from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., police officials said.

According to data released by the police department, 12,700 calls for the issues that will now receive a response from social workers took place in 2019. That’s 4 percent of the total 911 calls.

The department will monitor the new protocol for one year to determine if the new approach is successful. It’s possible officers will be dispatched with Community Assistance Liaison members, depending on the results.

A police officer will always be dispatched to violent or life-threatening situations, the department emphasized.

Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, the police union for the region, came out in support of the move.

“We believe this will reduce strain in police resources, reduce risks to our member officers, and better outcomes for our most vulnerable citizens that we serve,” Jonathan Vazquez, president of the union, said in a statement to news outlets.

St. Petersburg officers are also undergoing increased training in de-escalation and self-defense training while a civilian is being added to the hiring board from either the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Urban League, Faith Leaders, and Leadership St. Petersburg.

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber