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Winter Haven Public Safety is Addressing the Community’s Mental and Chronic Health Crisis

Posted March 29th, 2022

The importance of mental health has always been part of the conversations in the City of Winter Haven’s Public Safety department. Over the years, the City has invested in tools to support our first responders who see difficult situations daily. The department has also provided training to members as we strive to always address calls for service that involved mental health with professionalism, care and striving for the best possible outcome.

However, police officers only have two options available when called to a critical scene involving a mental health crisis that cannot be deescalated: arrest or Baker Act. These two options do not productively work toward solving the underlying mental health crisis that more and more people in our community, and nation-wide, are facing.

The Winter Haven Police Department trains its officers in Critical Incident Technique (CIT) using the Memphis Model. Through this program, officers provide follow-up after these interactions to connect the citizen with important resources, programs and medications. This program is in place as an effort to prevent individuals from being in crisis again. Unfortunately, this strategy has not proven to be a high enough level of support to end the cyclical nature of repeated crisis for many members of our community.

In the first two months of 2022, the impact of mental health in Winter Haven is heavy. For the months of January and February, police officers utilized the Baker Act 100 times. Many of those were repeat Baker Acts.

Sometimes the calls for service don’t involve a crisis or true emergency, but they still take public safety personnel away from their priorities and mission. “We see repeated calls for service from the same individuals for things like help picking up a remote across the room,” said Sonny Emery, Fire Chief. “These are not emergencies, these are people who need a different kind of help that our firefighters and EMTs aren’t equipped to provide.”

In a recent study and subsequent report by Polk Vision, a critical shortage of mental health counselors was identified in Polk County. The ratio of the population to mental health providers in Polk is 1,190 to 1. In comparison, the ratio in the state of Florida is 670 to 1 and the national benchmark is 310 to 1. Equally alarming is that one in seven Polk citizens reported they live with depression or are at risk of a behavioral health challenge.

“We’ve been paying attention to mental health for a long time,” says Charlie Bird, Public Safety Director. “Whether it’s due to the pandemic or not, we are seeing the need for support at a new level than ever before and we have to address that with a new method.”

Winter Haven Public Safety is creating a new position within the Police Department to help address this critical need in our community. The Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) position will work in a proactive capacity to provide services and will be responsible for community health support for individuals identified by Winter Haven Public Safety personnel to be at risk relating to mental health. This new member of the public safety team will assess individual and family needs in areas of mental health and chronic illness. They will be able to provide counseling support and also coordinate connections to and follow-up with other social and community resources. Areas of concern the Social Worker will address include mental and chronic illness, homelessness, and substance abuse, loss of life, poverty and criminal behavior. They will stay in touch with referred individuals and families, serving as a liaison between the department, community, public agencies and other professionals providing support services.

“The goal is to have a highly trained professional on our team who can build bridges between citizens in crisis and critical support systems in our community,” says Mike Herr, City Manager. “We recognize a critical need in our community and are doing all we can to provide the right support at the right time.”

The Licensed Clinical Social Worker will also be available to support Winter Haven Public Safety personnel, which includes both Fire and Police departments. They will be available after critical incidents when firefighters or police officers may need assistance decompressing. They will also provide guidance to on duty incident commanders in critical situations, but they will not be put in any dangerous situations as a primary response person.

The City of Winter Haven is converting a vacant crime analyst position in the Police Department to the Licensed Clinical Social Worker position still within the Public Safety department. “With technology, our analysts can work more efficiently,” said David Brannan, Chief of Police. “This allows us to convert that position to offer a new kind of support, the kind of support that is needed right now.”

The Public Safety team presented this initiative to the City Commission at the March 28 meeting. Many came to speak in support of this initiative including Sheriff Grady Judd; Brad Beatty of Heart 4 Winter Haven; Julie Kuhn, Lisa Clifton, and Jennifer Freeman-Walker from Southeastern University; and Debbie Jeffers on behalf of many in the audience from Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE).

“When I look at the vision you have here, I’m convinced it’s going to work”, said Sheriff Grady Judd. “This allows the team to look out for people who cannot always lookout for themselves.”

Tom Freijo, Abdul Al-Khatib, and Morgan Wilson from the Public Safety Community Advisory Committee also shared their individual and collective support. The Public Safety Community Advisory Committee met on March 10, 2022 where they voted unanimously to support this position.

“Not only is this a benefit to our community members, but I look at it as a need that is there for our law enforcement officers and our firefighters.” said Commissioner Brian Yates. “These people see and deal with things that thank god the majority of us will never have to. They need this support. They need someone they can go to. They need to be able to have no fear in going to that individual for support.”

The City of Winter Haven plans to begin advertising for this new position in the coming weeks. “We’re glad to be rolling this new initiative out,” says Mr. Herr. “We will monitor it closely and adjust as we need to as we learn more and the community’s needs continue to evolve.”