Apr 15, 2021 - News

Tampa Bay-area police, mental health experts team up to help citizens

A police officer hands a tablet to a woman

Largo police have had success using TRACE to reduce the number of Baker Act incidents. Credit: Summer Gray/Directions for Living

Two local police agencies have started using a simple tool to connect citizens in mental distress with professional mental-health services in order to avoid using the Baker Act to confine the person involuntarily in a psychiatric hospital.

  • And it seems to be working.

Background: When police officers respond to help a person in mental distress, they often have three choices:

  • Leave and do nothing, arrest the person and take them to jail, or initiate the Baker Act, which means holding citizens involuntarily for 72 hours in a treatment facility if they meet certain criteria.

What's new: A new program equips officers with tablets they use to call a professional counselor who can talk virtually with the distressed person about getting the help they need.

What they're saying: "A Baker Act is not treatment. It is a period of crisis stabilization," says April Lott, president and CEO of the Clearwater non-profit Directions for Living, whose counselors are working with police through the program.

  • "This period is fleeting, and if we can stabilize you that will pass and we can get you connected to treatment."

Details: Largo police officers were given tablets and trained on TRACE — or Telehealth Remote Access to Crisis Evaluation — in November, and they have reduced by half the number of Baker Acts the department initiates.

  • The Belleair Police Department began using TRACE this month.
  • Six other local agencies have inquired about it since a television news report ran, and USF got a grant to study effectiveness of the program, per Lott.

The big picture: The pandemic has forced law enforcement across the country to try to find innovative solutions to the huge increase in the number of people who call the police due to emotional distress and mental health crises.

Plus: The past year has made people more comfortable with virtual communication.

  • "People didn’t believe in the benefits of tele-health before the pandemic," Lott told Axios. "I thought, let’s take advantage of this moment, with people’s comfort level changing with technology."

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