The City of St. Petersburg, Florida recently announced a plan to respond to some nonviolent calls with social workers instead of police officers. PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Chief Anthony Holloway about why they’re implementing this program and how it will operate. 

Chuck Wexler:  Chief, how did this program come about?

Chief Holloway: As we saw the national conversation move towards defunding the police, I got together with my staff to take a look at what our police officers are doing.

Someone at the table said, “We are doing too much. We’re doing a lot of social work. Let’s imagine what it would look like to take some of our social service calls and hand them over to a professional.” And that’s how we developed this program.

Wexler:  How will these calls be dispatched?

Chief Holloway:  People will still call in through the 9-1-1 system. They’ll be screened, and if the call meets the criteria for an alternative response, the dispatcher will notify the third party to send a mental health specialist.

A good example is “My daughter won’t go to school,” or “My son is misbehaving.” If there are no weapons in the house and they just want someone to come to their home, we will dispatch a social worker.

Wexler:   What other types of calls will this include?

Chief Holloway:  Some mental health calls, like if someone is threatening suicide and there is no weapon involved. Maybe they’re just contemplating suicide and want to talk to someone. That would be a call that would go to that community liaison. So would a call for a person with mental health issues who just wants someone to talk to.

If someone is going through a mental health crisis and needs transportation to a treatment facility, that care provider could do that without us handcuffing someone and putting them in the back of a police car.

The average police officer is not equipped for these situations. We’re looking for a third-party expert to go out there and talk the person through their crisis.

Another set of calls would be youth truancy, or a child who’s being unruly at an elementary school. We can send an alternative response.

This unit can also handle substance abuse and drug overdoses. Often police officers will show up, look for the drugs, and try to make an arrest. That person needs help. We’d also send a professional for an intoxicated person who isn’t causing an issue.

For someone who is panhandling, the initial contact would be this civilian responder to see if they can initiate some help. We would also do that for a complaint about a homeless person. We can get that person in the system and then do follow-up.

Wexler:   How many of these calls do your officers respond to?

Chief Holloway:  We’re talking about 12,000-14,000 calls per year. For these calls, an officer could be on scene for 10 minutes to an hour. Once they’re done, they’re still on the phone trying to navigate the system, and may have to follow up later.

Wexler:  Is a program like this best done outside of the police department, rather than putting it under the police department?

Chief Holloway:  I think it’s better outside. If it’s inside, you have to handle the training, policies and procedures, recruiting, and retention. We want to use a third party who will handle all that. 

Wexler:   How did you settle on these reforms?

Chief Holloway:  In our agency, we started doing a deep dive and found it all comes down to training. We put so much on these officers’ plate that we haven’t been able to train them on the things they need to be trained on. By taking things off their plates, we can go back and teach them about de-escalation and other training.

We want them to be proficient at de-escalation and defensive tactics. At the same time, we want to identify the things that other people can do better than we can, so that we’re able to focus on the calls we need to handle.  

Wexler:   What about the argument that police officers are more service-oriented when tasked with helping persons who are homeless, have mental illness, or in crisis? Are you concerned that officers’ approach will change if they no longer have this responsibility?

Chief Holloway:  No, because officers can still make contact with these populations while out on patrol. But now they have an expert to provide help. Officers may only be able to spend 15 minutes with someone they come across on patrol, but a social worker can spend an hour and follow up the next day to make sure that person is getting what they need.

Wexler:   Officers often go into a situation expecting to find one thing and end up finding another. Are you worried about the safety of these civilian responders if a situation isn’t what they expect?

Chief Holloway:  Yes, and we’re going to assign them to our field training officers, so that if they end up in one of those situations, they will know how to get out of it. But there are already social workers out there today dealing with all kinds of situations, so many already have experience dealing with this.

Wexler:   Do you think this approach represents the future of policing?

Chief Holloway:  I do. Our police department is becoming very young, with the new officers coming on. And if we’re going to teach them de-escalation and other training, we need to assign other tasks to the experts who are trained to handle them. You can’t expect a 24-year-old police officer to go into an argument between a husband and wife who have been married for 30 years and resolve it.

Wexler:   Could you envision this unit responding to domestic violence calls?

Chief Holloway:  Down the road, I could see them responding to some domestic disputes that are screened through 9-1-1. They wouldn’t be appropriate for the majority of domestic calls, but if this program works, maybe they would respond to some domestic calls 3 or 4 years down the road. They won’t be handling those right now, though.

Wexler:   Traditionally police have been the only agency to call when there’s a crisis. Will this new agency handle calls throughout the night?

Chief Holloway:  Right now we’re looking at staffing this program from 6:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m.  In the past, everyone else went home at 5:00 p.m., and after that time, everything was left up to the police. We’re trying to change that culture, where we can get assistance at 9:00 at night.

And in some situations an officer may respond, get the situation under control, and have these social workers take over the call. Then the officer can go back in service and handle other calls.



Over the past eight years, former newspaper editor D. Brian Burghart has compiled a database of law enforcement officer-involved deaths since 2000. His database, Fatal Encounters, has been used by researchers and others to study police-involved deaths. He spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about why he started this project and how it might be useful to police officials.

Wexler:   What led you to start this project?

D. Brian Burghart: It wasn’t that I understood how big an issue it was. I was more dismayed that the federal government wasn’t keeping this data, or was keeping it so poorly that it wasn’t useful. And journalists weren’t stepping up to call the feds on it.

Wexler:   What information do you gather?

Burghart:  We collect information about cases where an officer was present when the person died. It doesn’t have to be an intentional use of force by the officer.

For example, if there’s a standoff and while the police are there, the aggressor kills his spouse, that spouse’s death would be included in the data. If a person dies by suicide while the officer is there, we include that. We also include off duty, because off-duty actions are often treated as though they were on duty. But we label these, so if you don’t want to include certain cases in your analysis, you don’t have to include them.

We collect data in 18 fields, including name, age, gender, race, date, street address, city, county, state, ZIP, agency, cause of death, URL linking to a news story (because we use some police reports but primarily use news media reports), brief description, intentional use of force and some variations on that, disposition (which we recommend people don’t use to analyze yet, because it’s sort of experimental), and we’re trying to establish if the officer knew when he or she arrived if the person was in a mental health crisis (we recommend people don’t analyze that, either, because it’s so poorly reported right now).

Wexler:   Are there important trends people should be aware of?

Burghart:  One thing that isn’t being reported is that deaths are at unprecedented levels this year. Our previous highest number of deaths was in 2018, and 2020 is going to surpass that. We’re on track to be over 2,000 deaths in 2020. 2018 had 1,848. That includes officer-involved shootings, chase deaths, suicides, everything.

Wexler:  How have researchers used your information?

Burghart:  There was a study done based on our data that suggested that if officers had to fill out a form every time they pulled out their gun, they pulled their guns less.

The website FiveThirtyEight used our data for a story about how police in cities are killing fewer people, while police in rural areas are killing more people.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.