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Sarasota County Agency To Help Law Enforcement On Mental Health Calls

Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight
Sarasota County Sheriff's Office/Facebook
Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight will become president and CEO of First Step of Sarasota in January.

A Sarasota County mental health agency will be teaming with law enforcement on a pilot program to provide assistance for those with behavioral health needs.

First Step of Sarasota announced Tuesday the formation of a Behavioral Health Response Team, consisting of licensed clinicians and psychiatrists who will work with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and Sarasota Police Department to answer calls involving a mental health crisis.

“This team is an outgrowth of the national conversation about the sometimes difficult intersection of policing and mental health issues,” said Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight in a news release. “We are proud to be taking proactive steps to create a system that works for our community.

“As it evolves, we envision that people with mental health issues and their family members will have a place to call not only during a crisis but well before, reducing unnecessary law enforcement actions and preventing worst case scenarios. We hope to see this become a model for our region and state.”

Knight will take over as president and CEO of First Step when he retires next month.

According to the release, the agency’s professionals will assist the sheriff’s office and Sarasota Police Department on calls “when a behavioral health crisis is taking place for high-need individuals.”

“As we think about the stress of our current times, it is entirely appropriate for us as a helping organization to think about meeting people with mental illness or substance use challenges as early as we can and in a setting they feel safe in,” current First Step CEO Gwen MacKenzie said in the release. “We hope through these approaches to prevent crises and acute events. We are fortunate to have the collaboration of law enforcement and their leadership.”

Similar programs have been implemented in Hillsboroughand Pinellascounties.

The release stated the move was made, in part, due to the increased stress, depression, and anxiety those with mental health issues are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Sarasota Police Department is proud to partner with First Step on this important initiative,” Police Chief Bernadette DiPino said. “We have been working for a long time to implement a response program to address mental health issues in our community.

“While our officers receive crisis response training, having a trained professional work with high need individuals will take a burden off of law enforcement ultimately benefitting the individual, their family, and our community. We look forward to implementing this pilot program as well as future partnership initiatives with First Step.”

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Carl Lisciandrello is digital news editor of WUSF Public Media.