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'We have to do more.' Local officers want to improve care for homeless, mentally ill

Bradenton Herald - 1/24/2020

Jan. 24--BRADENTON -- Manatee County's top law enforcement officials agree that more has to be done to assist the mentally ill, ease racial tension in the community and connect the homeless with resources.

"I feel very strongly that we don't do enough to help the homeless," said Sheriff Rick Wells, who spoke at a Manatee Tiger Bay Club luncheon Thursday afternoon. "We have the organizations, but collectively, we have to do more."

Local agencies are working together to figure out the best ways to engage the homeless population following the passage of several ordinances that restrict panhandling. One major component of that regulation is compassion, said Manatee County Commissioner Misty Servia.

"Don't misunderstand any of the regulation as not being compassionate toward people who need help, and we do have a lot of homeless people who need help," she said, adding that the Board of County Commissioners intends to fund a new position for a homeless services coordinator.

Wells said deputies at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office have formed a homeless outreach team that visits homeless encampments and links them with local organization that can provide housing, shelter and other benefits. Josh Cramer, assistant chief of the Bradenton Police Department, said his officers have been using Sarasota's efforts as a model.

"We've sent our officers down there to see what works and what doesn't," Cramer said.

At the Palmetto Police Department, police supervisors urge their officers to "take a step back" and consider whatever struggle a person may be dealing with, according to Capt. Lorenzo Waiters.

"When dealing with the homeless, sometimes we have to stop and tell ourselves that we don't know their circumstances and why they're here," Waiters explained. "Some of them do have drug problems, some are veterans suffering from with PTSD, some have some type of mental illness, but we don't treat them differently than anyone else, and that's what we tell our officers."

Wells said another chief concern is making sure that residents dealing with mental illness get the help they need. One out of every four adults is diagnosed with a mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

"We have to fund treatment and education, but treatment is critical," Wells said, who highlighted the Manatee County jail's two recovery pods. "We start the healing process there. We do what we can to help them lose addiction and re-enter our community and get there where they need to be. Even though we're not Centerstone and we're not a treatment program, we really have had a great success."

Discussion at the monthly luncheon also touched on how police handle racial tensions when working in the community. The sheriff's office received waves of backlash in December when a deputy used a stun device three times on an elderly woman. Activists say the incident was fueled by racism and gave the sheriff's office a "bad name."

"It's important to be in the community every single day, and we try to do that and build relationships to make changes when times are good. It's not always easy," Wells said. "I always tell the deputies we can be in the community every day for five years and doing a lot of good things and helping people. It only takes one bad incident, one deputy, one officer to really ruin what we've done in five years.

"I've had the misfortune of having to arrest, file charges and fire an officer before because of excessive force and what I believe is racism," he added. "It's doing the right thing, but social media doesn't help because a lot of times the facts are not able to come up before one side or the other is handed something that's not even true."

BPD takes a similar approach by investigating any complaints and working to create a positive image in with neighbors.

"Community involvement is really what we look at to help ease that tension. The deposits we make in those relationships pays dividends when you need to come back and ease tension," said Cramer.

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