Sheriff Employs Lovable Pit Bull Mix As Mental Health Therapy K-9
PASCO COUNTY, FL — As far as law enforcement officers go, Charlie is hardly an example of decorum.
He has a tendency to drool when he falls asleep in the sheriff’s cruiser and leave smudges on the SUV’s windows with his nose. And, to his partner’s horror, Charlie’s been known to occasionally scratch his private parts in public and relieve himself behind a nearby tree.
But when he’s called into action, Charlie is all business. He knows just what’s expected of him as the newest member of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office Behavioral Health Intervention Team — to be a calming presence and provide comfort to mentally ill residents in a crisis.
Partnered with Detective Pedro Leos, the big, friendly pit bull mix is specially trained to sooth people in the midst of panic or anxiety attacks due to bipolar, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders and de-escalate violent outbursts induced by psychosis or drug and alcohol addictions.
While Charlie can’t memorize the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — the psychiatric bible for mental health disorders), he’s been taught to recognize certain signs of distress in people and act to defuse it — whether it’s allowing the person to simply pet him, leaning on the person to provide a calming pressure, distracting the person from destructive behavior or escorting a disturbed person out of the environment that’s causing the anxiety.
Therapy dogs are not new. They’ve been employed in children’s hospitals and convalescent homes for many years to lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce anxiety and increase levels of endorphins and oxytocin.
K-9 therapy dogs, however, are uncommon. The International Association of Canine Professionals estimates that less than 20 certified therapy K-9 dogs in the United States are working with law enforcement behavioral health intervention teams.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, a longtime proponent of the use of service dogs in law enforcement, said Charlie is a natural addition to the mental health team he launched Oct. 1 after spending more than a year developing the program in response to the county’s growing mental health crisis.
In 2018, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office responded to 174,772 calls for service, 19,283 (or 11 percent) of which were related to mental health issues.
But Nocco believes the number of mental health-related calls has been underreported.
“That 11 percent is not true,” he said. “We all know that it’s a much higher number.”
Any domestic violence call, drug arrest or disorderly conduct arrest may be related to a mental health issue, he said.
Last June, a Pasco County sheriff’s deputy nearly lost his life when he was shot while responding to a domestic violence call in which a man was acting irrationally, being abusive toward his wife and daughter, and barricading himself inside his home with a loaded weapon.
With so many deputies at risk of walking into volatile situations, Nocco decided to take a proactive approach and form a team specially trained to deal with mental health issues.
The team costs $1.45 million per year and consists of a lieutenant, a sergeant, a social worker, two case managers, six deputies and, as of this month, Charlie.
The Behavioral Health Intervention Team’s emphasis is on people who are habitual offenders with mental health problems or have been repeatedly detained under the Baker Act.
The Baker Act is a 1971 Florida law that enables families to detain family members experiencing mental health episodes in a mental health facility for up to 72 hours.
In 2018, the sheriff’s office detained 3,436 people under the Baker Act, with 503 detained more than one time.
The purpose of the Baker Act is to allow mental health professionals and the courts to assess the person and determine appropriate treatment for his or her mental health issues. In the early years of the Baker Act, this often meant placing the person in a psychiatric hospital.
In the 1990s, however, deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients led to the closure of state-funded psychiatric hospitals around the country.
According to the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, an estimated 487,000 mentally ill patients were discharged from state hospitals and left to their own devices, many becoming homeless.
Those with family support have few treatment options. Many of the private hospitals remaining in business don’t accept insurance and cost up to $30,000 a month, according to the center.
Outpatient providers are equally scarce. The average ratio of Florida residents to mental health providers is 700 to 1, and in Pasco County that ratio nearly doubles to 1,460 to 1, according to the Pasco sheriff’s office.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness — about 46.6 million in 2017.
Nocco said the purpose of the team isn’t simply to react to a mental health crisis. He encourages team members to form relationships with people with mental health problems so they can monitor them and, hopefully, prevent a crisis.
To that end, the team has partnered with community mental health services, such as BayCare Behavioral Health and Novus Detox, so residents can get the treatment and medication they need to control their illnesses.
“We can spend time with them (people with mental health issues) to understand what barriers they are facing and then strategize with our community partners to create those pathways,” said Lt. Toni Roach, who leads the Behavioral Health Intervention Team.
The unit will also help assess threats as they come in.
“Are these people going to do violence in our community; are they going to shoot up a school?” Nocco said.
To assist patrol and detention deputies who may come in contact with a person experiencing mental health problems, the team offers a 40-hour mental health training program.
Roach said about 45 percent of patrol deputies are now certified in the program, and the sheriff hopes to have the entire force certified within the next year or so.
Nocco hopes to eventually create a mental health emergency room funded with proceeds from the nationwide lawsuit against opioid distributors and manufacturers.
Pasco County, which has been hit by the opioid crisis especially hard, is a party in the lawsuit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that people in Pasco County are 1.7 times more likely to die of a drug overdose than the average Florida resident, with a mortality rate of 20.7 per 100,000 residents.
Pasco County currently has the highest overdose death rate of any county in the state. In 2019, Pasco County Fire Rescue administered 1,600 doses of Narcan to patients experiencing an opioid overdose.
“We need places where people understand, ‘This is where I go if I have a mental health crisis,'” said Nocco.
In the meantime, the sheriff’s office will depend on a gangly, sometimes goofy pit bull mix named Charlie to help avert a crisis.
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