St. Pete police promised a social worker program, but activists are concerned about delayed timeline, budget
SPPD Chief Anthony Holloway.

It won't be ready for the promised Oct. 1 start.

In July, the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) and Mayor Rick Kriseman announced that $3.8 million from city funds would be used to develop a new division within the police department called the Community Assistance Liaison (CAL), but local activists are concerned about the program’s timeline and budget.

The CAL team would serve as a social service agency arm of the SPPD, consisting of social workers and other social service professionals who would be responsible for responding to nonviolent crisis calls from the public.

According to a press release from the SPPD, St. Pete police officers responded to about 12,700 nonviolent crisis calls last year that they believe could instead be serviced by this new team of community assistant liaisons (CALs). This includes calls concerning disorderly conduct, mental health crises, issues concerning houseless populations, drug overdose, and more.

The funding for the CAL program comes from city funds that had originally been set aside to match federal grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, which awarded $3.1 million to the SPPD in June to hire 25 new police officers, as part of the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Program.

The announcement of St. Pete’s CAL team initially came as a pleasant surprise to people across the Bay who, since May, have been organizing protests for police reform and maintaining pressure on city officials to legislate meaningful solutions to racial disparities in policing, incarceration, and other institutions.

“We were pushing for it, but it didn’t take as much pushing as we anticipated,” says Richie Floyd, a St. Pete community organizer and former middle school science and engineering teacher who spoke with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay over the phone on Monday.

Two months after this initial announcement, however, some of the early optimism about this new program has dissipated. According to Floyd, recent developments on the program’s implementation have disrupted the initial rosy vision shared with organizers who make up the backbone of St. Pete’s police reform efforts — namely, activists within Dream Defenders, St. Pete Peace Protest, and other activated community members.

“Now, they’re definitely backtracking because reactionaries come out of the woodwork,” Floyd, who does organizing work with both Dream Defenders and the Pinellas Democratic Socialists of America (PDSA), told CL.

According to Floyd, there are three major developments local activists aren’t happy about: the timeline of the program’s implementation, its funding, and the role of St. Pete police officers in the program.

Back in early July, the city government and SPDD first said that the new CAL team would begin answering nonviolent crisis calls on October 1. This was formally announced in a news release from the SPPD, published July 9.

As it stands in September, tangible steps towards achieving this reality, however, have not taken place. Last week, WTVT reported that, as of September 4, the city had not yet put out a request for proposals (RFP) for the CAL program, but that it might happen “sometime in October.”

The RFP is the first step the St. Pete city government would have to take to implement the CAL program, as a way to get pricing from providers involved.

In a phone call with CL on Tuesday, SPPD spokesperson Sandra Bentil, confirmed this finding. However, Bentil did not give a date for when the RFP would be released, saying only that it would be “soon” and that the program would not be up and running by October 1. According to Bentil, the city is still in the process of developing the RFP. She also stated that the CAL team was “always intended” to be part of next financial year, which starts in October.

This contradictory messaging puts the starting date of the CAL division in question — a red flag for community activists who have been keeping tabs on the program’s development. According to Floyd, he and other activists involved in this effort — such as Dream Defenders member Ashley Green — were surprised by this development, but only to an extent.

More concerning to him and other activists in St. Pete is the latest development in how the program will be funded. In the original press release, the SPDD and city government stated that the city would be setting $3.8 million aside to fund the program, using funds originally intended to hire new police officers. Not in the press release, but detailed in a press conference was the timeline for the allocation of the funds. (In a July 9 press conference, SPPD Chief Anthony Holloway said, “We went back and said you know what, instead of hiring those 25 new officers — which equates to $3.1 million federal dollars that was coming to us for the next three years — let’s develop a new team.”)

With the information they had, this number was acceptable to activists — until the city’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2021 was made publicly available, revealing a mere $850,000 in funding for the CAL division.

Since the public release of the city’s $671 million operating budget for 2021, activists have learned that — contrary to what had originally been anticipated, but in accordance with Holloway’s comments — the $3.8 million in program funding would be spread over three years, beginning with that $850,000 the first year.

During the first of two budget hearings on September 3, the city’s budget director, Liz Makofske, told the St Pete City Council that the first year’s allocation “exceeded the amount” of their original estimation. According to Makofske, the $850,000 number comes from estimated operating costs provided by Holloway.

In response to the city’s divvying up of funds, about 20 people involved in St. Pete police reform protests called into the city budget hearing to express their concerns about the funding plan.

“We were like, this clearly isn’t enough funding — what are you doing?” organizer Richie Floyd told CL. According to Floyd, the city came back to them saying that the initial estimate for the first year had been $650,000, with the implication that activists should have been grateful for the extra $200,000 of padding.

For comparison, a similar crisis response model in Oregon — Eugene’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) — operates on a $2 million budget annually, saving the city an estimated $8.5 million a year in public safety spending.

But, as Floyd rightfully pointed out to CL, Eugene’s a smaller city than St. Pete. He and other activists question how the city plans to hire, train, and operate their team of Community Assistance Liaisons on less than it takes to run a similar program in a smaller city.

In 2018, Eugene’s CAHOOTS team — in operation since 1989 — responded to an estimated 24,000 calls. Of these 24,000 only 150 required police back-up. The rest were managed by the program’s two-person teams of crisis workers and medics.

“They keep talking about how, ‘Oh, we must have been confused because we said that there was this grant money [from the Justice Department, for SPPD],’” Floyd told CL. “I’m like, no we’re not confused, we know that it was matching funds [from the city] that you guys were talking about. We know that we weren’t going to get the grant money.

“But you [the city] said $3.8 million. And then you said, ‘Oh, well actually it’ll be over three years’ — and then you didn’t even give us a third of that.”

A third nail in the coffin of activists’ hopes and dreams for the new CAL team is a rhetorical shift concerning the city’s characterization of the program and how it will operate.

In a recent podcast interview with St. Pete Catalyst, St. Pete assistant police chief Antonio “Tony” Gillam referred to the CAL division as a “pilot program” and said that all social service professionals dispatched to eligible nonviolent crisis calls would, for an indefinite amount of time, be accompanied by St. Pete police officers.

“That way, we can be reassured that they’re safe…and once we know that we’re able to triage these calls correctly, the ultimate goal is to separate us from these calls completely,” Gilliam told podcast host and Deputy Mayor, Dr. Kanika Tomalin.

This seems to contradict the initial press release from SPPD in early July, which clearly stated that a CAL team member would be dispatched to respond to eligible crisis calls instead of a police officer.

Floyd told CL that the new SPPD division was not initially described as a pilot program, and that this shift in language raises red flags for him and others who have been keeping tabs on this program’s development.

In a text message to CL on Wednesday, City of St. Petersburg Spokesperson Benjamin Kirby addressed the “confusion in the community about the timeline and budget.”

“First, the program receives funding at the beginning of the fiscal year (Oct 1). That has always been the case. Second, the funding was always over the course of three years,” Kirby wrote. “Mayor Kriseman is excited about this pilot, learning from it, and continuing to reimagine policing in St. Pete.”

Still, Floyd argues that having SPPD officers accompany CAL members on these response calls would compromise the legitimacy of the data on the program’s effectiveness. “The presence of the police in a mental health crisis — someone with a badge and a gun, [who] can take you to prison or kill you — is going to immediately escalate the situation in a way that a plainclothes social worker would not.”

Floyd also argues that, instead of creating a safer situation for social service professionals responding to these calls, this new buddy system schtick could potentially make the situation less safe, potentially resulting in “bad data.”

Furthermore, having police officers accompany social service professionals on these calls for an indefinite period of time also raises questions about whether or not the SPPD actually intends to remove law enforcement officers from the CAL team, once the “safety” of the program is established.

Gilliam, in his podcast interview, said that doing so is indeed the end-goal. But on the phone with CL, St. Pete Police spokesperson Bentil said that the details of the program have yet to be fleshed out.

This uncertainty, and other recent developments shared above, concerns community organizers like Floyd, who had been working on criminal justice reform campaigns with Dream Defenders prior to the latest wave of Black Lives Matter protests.

In the short term, Floyd says activists are planning to attend the city’s second budget hearing on Thursday, Sept. 17 to reiterate their concerns about the $850,000 planned for the CAL program’s first year in operation (if and when that does indeed happen).

In the long-term, however, Floyd says it’s going to be imperative for community members to demand that city officials implement the program as it was initially described. He and other activists also want the CAL team to be employed by the city— not contracted out—to ensure there will be city oversight, and that the jobs provide good wages.

In Tampa, local Black Lives Matter and police reform activists are also trying to push for the implementation of a CAHOOTS-like crisis response program, which would have mental health workers respond to nonviolent crisis calls in the community—preferably without police officers tagging along.

This demand has gained some support among the Tampa City Council — with John Dingfelder as a key ally in getting the ball rolling on this — but there is still concern about what the program will look like, how it will operate, and where it’s going to get its funding.

Unlike the city of St. Pete, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has not supported any move to develop the program using city funds. No room in the proposed $179 million Tampa Police Department budget for next year, apparently.

And several Tampa City Council members are pushing for a co-response crisis model, which would have mental health workers co-respond to 911 calls, rather than remove a police presence from the equation.

In St. Petersburg, Floyd named City Council Member Amy Foster as a potential ally in helping keep city officials accountable for their original plan for the CAL team. When the $850,000 figure for the CAL team was first released, Floyd and others reached out to Foster. She’s since raised concerns about this, according to Floyd, agreeing with activists that the number was too low to fund the proposed program.

However, Foster has not commented on other changes made to the original plan, beyond the budgeting concerns. Floyd told CL he was planning to speak to Foster later this week, to ask for her support in fighting the proposed changes to the CAL program. St. Pete community members are also looking into the possibility of getting their program legislated through the City Council, rather than through executive or bureaucratic action.

Floyd said that activists in Tampa who are pushing for similar reform could learn from the experience of those across the bridge. “Make sure to hold your officials accountable when they’re doing something important,” he says, and warns that city officials saying they’re going to do something is different than actually following through. “Don’t just take their word for it.”

Creative Loafing

One comment

  • ron

    September 17, 2020 at 4:55 am

    Can’t wait to sell my home and leave this shithole city!

Comments are closed.


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