The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office works with the community to achieve a positive interaction with law enforcement. Recently, through one of its newer programs, the Behavioral Health Intervention Team, the Sheriff’s Office has been advocating for mental health.
The BHIT program started in September 2019 with just 12 detectives on the team and has since expanded to 16 detectives and two animal-assisted therapy dogs. Collaboration with community partners, such as BayCare Health System’s Behavioral Health, makes a difference, officials said.
Capt. Tony Roach said access to doctor’s offices to accommodate emergency appointments is one of the best tools.
“If a person is in crisis, they use resources disproportionately,” Roach said. “They’re not stable, they’re at risk, and if we can use a little leverage to expedite their appointments, I’m not ashamed to do that.”
The program looks at different things happening in the community, such as the number of people who disproportionately use emergency services, or people who are detained under Florida’s Baker or Marchman laws or a judge’s ex parte order.
“We rely heavily on co-workers and patrol assistants to let us know what’s going on in the community,” Roach said. “We might have a person call 9-1-1 believing there’s a break-in and someone stole from their house, but when a patrol comes out and they don’t see any evidence, they’ll talk to the person, and through conversation see symptoms of mental illness that can cause delusions and hallucinations.
In that case, Roach added, the detective can make a referral to the behavioral health team and get them involved in services. Sometimes the delusions are caused by substance use and the detective has to figure out which path to take.
How you engage with an individual is very different, Roach explained. Someone with mental health issues may not think they are sick, while people with addictions have to overcome that barrier as well.
Since BHIT’s inception, detectives have found their preferred area within the program in which they excel.
“We started out really together in what we were doing and we wanted everyone to do everything,” Roach said. “We were supposed to be plug-and-play depending on our needs in the community, but of course passion starts to bleed and people end up in small niches.”
Dogs on post
Two new additions are BHIT’s K-9 partners. Based on the interactions she’s seen, Roach said the pairing works very well. Although BHIT was not one of the first organizations to implement therapy dogs, it has been ahead of the curve as the use of therapy dogs has become more mainstream over the past two years.
Other sheriff’s departments typically use dogs to protect victims, Roach noted, and BHIT simply uses the dogs to build relationships and understanding. She added that the dogs are not meant to elicit recognition or comfort the individual as a victim, but to use them in ways to improve mental health. Sometimes a person will bond faster with a dog, and sometimes BHIT will use the dog as an incentive to get people to follow up for appointments and other services.
BHIT also fills other gaps in mental health services, including outreach to the juvenile population and veterans services.
Among other services, an overdose detective works to connect people who have experienced a non-fatal overdose with services within 24-48 hours of the event.
“It’s to catch them when they’re in a vulnerable state, but they haven’t gone to get the drugs again,” Roach said. “If they are interested in services, they will be taken to BayCare Health for a screening process. If they need detox, they’ll land on the fast track to get to services, and the deputy can even drive them to where they need to be.
If an individual doesn’t need detox, it’s a priority to get an appointment as soon as possible, Roach added. One of the benefits of partnering with BayCare is that the organization sets aside one spot per day for people employed by the team. BayCare also contributes to participation in the case manager program.
BHIT is a completely voluntary service and criminality is not a qualifying or disqualifying factor, according to Roach. If a person wants to work with the team, staff will also ask them if they want to work with BayCare Behavioral Health.