Our Position: In an innovative new plan police will work with Sarasota County’s First Step to help mentally ill before there is a problem.

Sarasota County’s soon-to-be-retired Sheriff Tom Knight realized a long time ago that people with addictions and mental issues should not be going to jail with the frequency he saw when he first became sheriff eight years ago.

So, when retirement neared, he was eager to accept a job as CEO of First Step of Sarasota, an agency that deals with mental health and addiction issues. Knight is offering a plan that has been embraced by the agency and area police to cut down on arrests and violent incidents — some that can lead to shootings and death.

Gwen McKenzie, who is stepping down as CEO of First Step, Knight, North Port Police Chief Todd Garrison, incoming Sheriff Kurt Hoffman and Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino met last week to unveil the program and explain how it should work. The hope is that by identifying people in the community with mental health issues through prior arrests and calls for service, police can call on mental health professionals to help deescalate situations that could lead to a violent encounter. The program will rely heavily on communication between police and First Step and on getting accurate information about individuals.

Knight is anxious to see how the pilot program works, while at the same time exhibiting confidence that it will make a difference in the community. He noted that citizens were Baker Acted — forced into treatment because of their actions while under the influence or because of a mental health breakdown — more than 6,500 times last year in Sarasota County.

The sheriff believes there are too many times when a call for help can result in someone being talked down and sent home rather than risking a confrontation with an officer that can lead to someone being shot or worse.

“Families don’t want us showing up at their house and shooting their loved one,” he said at the meeting last week. “At the end of the day, we’re not clinicians, we’re not pros, we’re cops... there’s a better way to do it now. Society wants a better way. We believe this program fits our community.”

The Behavioral Health Response Team can mobilize to a person’s home after a phone call from police. The idea is for the “pros” to deal with the subject of the complaint and attempt to calm them down and get them help.

Knight predicts most of those who are acting out will have a file with police and First Step that indicates the primary source of their problem — whether it is mental illness such as bipolar disorder or an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

The partnership between the officer called to the scene and the clinician will be designed to lessen the chances of violence while at the same time providing needed care and possible treatment for the subject.

Knight said North Port would definitely benefit from the program as he promised to bring more services to the county’s largest city.

We are encouraged Sarasota County is making the effort to target its mentally ill and those suffering from addictions with a pro-active program that has the potential to not only cut down on violence during confrontations but get needed care for individuals who need it.


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