ORLANDO, Fla. – In law enforcement, each call requires a different type of response. Many times, officers are needed to handle situations. But in other cases, another unit focused on mental health may be a better fit.
That’s when the Orlando Police Department’s Community Response Team steps in-- and LaTashia Stephens is a critical part of that team.
“I think the most important part of this job is knowing that you are making a difference,” said Stephens. “The hardest part of this job is not everyone appreciates the job that we do in this building. This is a tough environment.”
But she also knows, it’s going to be rewarding.
“I do feel like I’m making a difference. I feel like the whole program is making a difference,” said Stephens. “I feel like more services that we have, we can offer for the city and for our citizens, the more we can connect people to their needs.”
Stephens is the lead trainer and communications supervisor for the CRT team. They partner with the trained mental health professionals at Aspire Health to go on non-violent calls.
“It starts here in a communication center, when people are at their most vulnerable, they need help, and that we’re triaging the cause,” said Stephens. “And we’re making sure that the team can go and connect them with services they need.”
The program started more than a year ago as a pilot program with the call center dispatchers on the frontlines.
“Sometimes it can be overwhelming, because you are in charge and you have to make that decision,” said Stephens. “You know, you have to decide A. if you’re going to send someone, B. who you’re going to send, are you going to send a mental health team? Are you going to send the officers? So based on our training and how we triage the calls, we can pretty much decide if there’s no weapons, then we’re going to send a team. If there’s weapons, then we’re sending officers as well.”
Then, the program expanded.
“We brought in a program to include our check the well-being, so if somebody’s calling and they want us to check on their parents, or you know, the girlfriend is not doing well, she may have said something, then we sent a team out to those calls,” said Stephens.
She said that need became increasingly apparent during the pandemic.
“People were home more, the calls for people in crisis increased. And a lot of the well-being calls because if people stayed out of town, and they haven’t heard from their loved ones, they will want us to go out and check on them just to make sure that they were okay,” said Stephens.
In that first year, the department says it responded to 956 calls and connected more than half of those people to local mental health care.
“The success of the program is that the citizens realize that the program is available for them. And they’re calling us, they want an alternative to police response to people that are dealing with mental health issues instead of police officers. We’ve been successful with giving the citizens what they’ve asked for, as far as sending our partners Aspire Health to people that are in mental crisis,” said Stephens. “We’ve been successful, no injuries, no one has gotten hurt, nothing has happened. So so far, what we’re doing is working.”
Stephens said some days and decisions are tougher than others, but she said this program is one of the best things about her 25 year career, so far.
“I think it’s a game changer for the city. I think it’s a game changer for our community,” said Stephens. “And I got an opportunity to make a difference in the way the City of Orlando and the Orlando Police Department respond to people that are in crisis.”