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Gualtieri Expands Mental Health Unit That Will Assist Pinellas Deputies On Calls

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced he is expanding his department's mental health unit.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced he is expanding his department's mental health unit.

Saying deputies are not properly trained to handle calls involving mental illness, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri on Wednesday announced measures to alleviate law enforcement officers of those responsibilities.

The announcement centers on the sheriff’s office Mental Health Unit.

Under the changes, Gualtieri said the unit will be expanding and partner with mental health professionals on calls that “are not true criminal acts,” according to a news release.

“Trying to make cops mental health professionals is trying to jam a round ball into a square hole,” Gualtieri said. “It’s not a good fit, and in fact, it really does not fit at all.”

According to the release, Pinellas County deputies respond to about 5,000 mental health-related calls a year. These calls often result in an arrest, or the person being detained under Florida’s Baker Act.

Wednesday’s changes mean calls will be screened, and if at that time it is determined to be related to mental health, members of the unit will respond and decide whether the individual should be placed under the Baker Act. They will then decide how to best follow up.

Gualtieri said some offenses are the result of mental illness and not the act of a true criminal who should be jailed.

"The people who are least qualified to address the mental health issues -- which are the cops -- are being called upon too often to deal with the symptoms of mental illness,” Gualtieri said “And criminalizing the symptoms of mental health disorders is not the way it should be handled."

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Carl Lisciandrello is digital news editor of WUSF Public Media.