In response to multiple demands for reform, including flyers posted downtown during fourth of July weekend by the St. Pete Peace Protest movement, St. Petersburg is "re-imagining" the city’s police force and its role in responding to social service calls.
Updated July 10, 6 p.m. with additional comments from the St. Pete Peace Protest movement.
At a Thursday press conference, Mayor Rick Kriseman and Chief of Police Anthony Holloway announced a plan that includes the creation of a new program, the Community Assistant Liaison (CAL).
Starting October 1, the program will include 18 to 20 social and mental health workers who will be tasked with responding to non-criminal calls in place of police officers.
CAL will be initially funded with a $3.1 million grant from the federal government that was originally intended to hire 25 new officers.
The city will match that with an additional $3.8 million to ensure the program continues.
“We're asking the group that's doing this, they'll be doing it from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m.,” Holloway said. “There'll be three people working every district, just like we have police officers, so they can handle those calls for service.”
Although the team will be under Assistant Poice Chief Antonio Gilliam’s direction, Holloway said they will not be carrying a radio or gun.
“That's why the CAL team is out there,” he said. “So when that person is in a crisis, they're not looking at this uniform and seeing all the things that's on this uniform, you're looking at someone else to come in, to help them through their crisis.”
Jonathan Vazquez, president of the Florida Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, said the union supports the program because it’s time for officers to refocus on reducing crime and keeping neighborhoods safe.
“We believe this will lead to decreased strain on police resources, reduce risk to our member officers, and better outcomes for our most vulnerable citizens,” he said.
Holloway also announced an increase in de-escalation and self-defense training, giving officers alternatives to reaching for their weapons.
Over the next 90 days, Holloway said they will be doing a full department review, including evaluating the necessity for all equipment, making additional changes to their use-of-force policies, and clarifying the officer complaint process.
He added, from this point forward, all service calls will be monitored for whether or not an actual crime is being committed.
“Believe it or not, we still get some calls about ‘There's an African American male sitting in the park, he doesn't look like us,’” Holloway said. “We're not coming to those calls.”
The department will also be expanding their “Park, Walk, and Talk” program.
“For the past six years, [officers] have been walking an hour, we get to know the community - that's going to change,” Holloway said. “It's going to be two to three hours a week, because they're going to have that time to, again, build relationships in the community.”
They also plan on bringing in another leader, possibly from the NAACP or Urban League, to sit on the police department’s hiring board.
Jalessa Blackshear, a regular participant in the St. Pete Peace Protest movement, said the reforms are just a distraction from the bigger issues at hand.
"This is an organizational deficiency of the system," she said. "Let's give them a reward and don't really get to the root of it."
She said that with every demand demonstrators make, city officials have replied that programs are already in place to address them.
Blackshear questioned their effectiveness. She said that Blacks in St. Petersburg have been faced with inequality throughout the city's history, citing the Sundown Laws and neighborhood segragation boundaries created in the Jim Crow Era.
"There are city ordinances in the municipal charter that make it illegal for the hindrance of black advancement," Blackshear said. "So these are the social injustices that need to be addressed."
Kriseman invited protest leaders to a conversation with city leaders, referring to a discussion during the City Council meeting earlier Thursday.
“Citizens, activists, protesters, must jump at every opportunity to work collectively to help create that real and lasting change that I spoke about,” he said. “So let's talk to each other. Let's listen to each other, then let's turn our exchange into action.”