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Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office special unit pairs officers with mental health professionals

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Police often get the call when a mental health expert would be the better answer. That’s why the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office created the Behavioral Crisis Response Unit and found the team is making a big difference.

Action News Jax rode along with the unit and while it’s not what you usually think of from policing, found it has made major inroads with people needing help.

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We spent hours with Officer Chris Russo and mental health provider Bobbi. The pair often meets people on the worst day of their lives, or close to it.

On the day of our ride-along, they helped a woman who’d been abandoned by her boyfriend, out of town and out of options.

“He dropped me off,” she cries, “He never came back.”

READ: ‘We see things that can’t be unseen:’ How JSO is breaking the stigma of officers asking for help

The special unit was created to help people in situations just like this, having a mental health crisis. She is bipolar and threatening to hurt herself. When she realized she was all alone, “that triggered me, boy,” she said.

In this unit, the officers are paired up with a provider from the Mental Health Resource Center. They respond when the police are called, but the situation really calls for another kind of expertise.

“We avoided her being Baker Acted and taken to a hospital,” Russo said about the woman he helped, “In my personal opinion, my experience, I don’t think she needed that today. I think she needed somebody to talk to.”

READ: Florida Department of Law Enforcement creates first-ever mental health seminar to address trauma

So these officers and their counterparts listen. Then put the people in touch with the resources they need -- medication, therapy, or in this woman’s case, family.

“We can actually secure a bus ticket for you to get back home,” they tell the abandoned woman, and take her to Homeward Bound so she makes it there.

The Florida Mental Health Act, more commonly known as the “Baker Act,” allows officers to take people suffering a mental health crisis to the hospital whether they want to go or not. That’s with a court’s order.

READ: Wolfson Children’s Hospital is expanding care for youth mental health

It’s a temporary detention in order to provide them with emergency services, but for various reasons, that’s not always the best option.

Chief Jaime Eason is in charge of the unit.

“There is a real problem with mental illness,” she said, “and they do need case workers, they do need long-term care, they do need medication and further therapy. We can’t police our way out of this.”

READ: Jacksonville’s Pace Center for Girls partnering with community to combat youth mental health crisis

That’s where these teams come in. They’re a bridge, responding to calls that are more of a cry for help, treating people like patients, not problems.

Like with the woman in crisis, their first response is a request to let them help here: “What do you think we can do to help you today? Like, what do you need right now?” they ask. And her response is clear “Right now, I need, honestly, I have nowhere to go.”

Last year alone, the unit was able to avoid using the Baker Act 287 times, instead, getting those people the help they needed without a forced hospitalization.

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“This program affords us another option,” Eason said, “and it’s a really, really good option for us to have.”

The program started in 2019 with one officer and has grown to a team of twelve. In that time, the number of times the Baker Act has been used has dropped by 575 cases. In 2019, the first year of the program, Duval records show the Baker Act was used 2,965 times. Last year, it was only used 2,390 times.

When they aren’t responding to calls, the teams are following up with people recently home from a Baker Act hospital stay. They make sure the patients got what they needed and have the support so it doesn’t happen again.

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It’s a win for everyone, Russo said. Resources at hospitals aren’t over-taxed, regular patrol can focus on police calls, and most importantly, people are getting the help they need.

At the end of the day, Russo said, the fact that “our team has actually been able to serve someone … that’s what’s most important to me.”

It’s not just about responding to crime, he said, it’s helping to prevent it.

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