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Manatee County activists call for new mental health program after Palmetto man's death

Bradenton Herald - 4/23/2024

Apr. 23—BRADENTON — Around a dozen protesters gathered in front of the Manatee County Commission building Tuesday morning to demand mental health services as part of a campaign to seek justice for a Palmetto man who died in police custody.

Supporters of 36-year-old Breonte Johnson-Davis, who died shortly after an encounter with the Palmetto Police Department in November, called on Manatee County commissioners to implement a service that would connect callers with mental health professionals instead of police officers when appropriate.

The Community Assistance and Life Liaison program, known as CALL, has emergency dispatchers send social workers to calls they may be better equipped to handle, such as mental health crises, suicide interventions, or even neighborhood disputes or homeless complaints.

Johnson-Davis' mother, Tracey Washington, said CALL or a similar program is needed in Manatee County and would save lives.

"On Nov. 1, I was given a life sentence with no possibility of parole, because I'll never get to see my child again. But I stand before you today to ask you to look into the program that everybody is talking about," Washington said during the Manatee County Commission's public meeting Tuesday.

"If this program was implemented here in Manatee County, I feel as though Breonte would still be alive today," Washington said.

In response, commissioners said similar services are already available in Manatee County. They also denounced the protesters for their criticism of local law enforcement, calling their protest part of an effort to "attack" first responders.

Calls for change after Palmetto death

Johnson-Davis died shortly after Palmetto police attempted to take him into custody under the Marchman Act, which provides for voluntary and involuntary admissions and assessments of people who are severely impaired due to substance abuse, according to Florida law.

During the police encounter, officers used a stun gun on Johnson-Davis twice.

A medical examiner's report ruled the manner of death as an "accident" and a report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that Palmetto Police was not responsible for Johnson-Davis' death, but Washington and others at the protest aren't satisfied.

An administrative investigation regarding the involvement of an off-duty Bradenton Police Department officer who was also there that night was also opened in November, according to a spokesperson with BPD, although the status of that investigation was unclear as of Tuesday afternoon.

Washington and others are calling for "a truly independent autopsy and investigation into Breonte's death" and said the cycle of the "police investigating themselves" has to end.

But Washington said there was no need for police to be there in the first place and that officers often lack the tools needed to de-escalate mental health crises, which is why she said programs like CALL are effective.

Can CALL work in Manatee County?

The city of St. Petersburg adopted CALL in January 2021 in collaboration with the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services amid national and local calls for police reform following George Floyd's death.

The goals of the program are to reduce police involvement in non-criminal and non-violent calls for service and to reduce repeat calls by providing long-term support while providing "a more compassionate approach to quality of life issues," according to the St. Petersburg Police website.

In doing so, Washington said it also frees officers to focus more time on crime.

Since CALL's inception in 2021, it's been used more than 11,000 times by 5,000 unique individuals, including 911 calls, non-emergency calls and follow-ups, according to a study conducted by Results for America.

According to the study, 97% of CALL's responses "result in a diversion from a crisis unit, hospitalization or police response."

Manatee officials respond to protest

Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge called what happened to Johnson-Davis a tragedy and said his heart goes out to Washington and her family, but he also pointed out that police officers and first responders are often put in what he called "no-win situations."

Van Ostenbridge said he wasn't happy with police officers being "wrongly and baselessly disparaged" at Tuesday's meeting during public comments. He specifically pointed to the use of the term "killer cops" by some Johnson-Davis supporters and said that "significant facts were left out of their statements," such as the toxicology report.

An autopsy found Johnson-Davis died from cardiac arrest caused by the amount of methamphetamine and a synthetic stimulant in his system. The report also said that subdual by law enforcement likely had "little physiological effect."

"It's a shame that he died, but you don't get to then come up here and take a tragedy and use it as part of what we know was a much larger movement to attack police and attack first responders," Van Ostenbridge said.

Several community activists, including those at Tuesday's protests, have pointed to the behavior of Palmetto police officers shown in body cam footage as unprofessional. In the footage, an officer can be heard joking about how he got to use his new stun gun for the first time.

Van Ostenbridge said similar resources to CALL already exist in Manatee County, referencing Centerstone's Mobile Crisis Intervention Service.

According to the city of Bradenton's website, the service "provides timely and effective individual and family mental health intervention to anyone" in Manatee and Desoto Counties age six and up.

Centerstone says that they assist agencies including law enforcement, schools and institutions by responding either physically or over the phone "when a crisis is occurring to help de-escalate the situation."

The service is a 24-hour hotline people can call for suicidal threats, psychotic symptoms, severe depression, a marked deterioration in behavior and more.

Centersone's website says that you should call 911 and not the hotline when "someone is intoxicated or under the influence of drugs and is threatening to hurt others or themselves" or during a "medical emergency."

For those seeking "justice for Breonte," this isn't enough.

Activists vow to keep pushing for change

Ruth Beltran, a member of Answer Suncoast and the Party for Socialism and Liberation in Tampa Bay, who helped organize Tuesday's protest, said they plan to attend county commission meetings until CALL or a similar program is implemented.

"Police and law enforcement are not trained or equipped to deal with this," Beltran said.

Washington also called for the resignation of Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler and Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant, who she said has "shown no remorse."

"We have officers that do things to our babies that are so harmful and then they don't get accountability held to them. So I'm begging everybody to stand behind us to help save another child's life. Because the pain that I'm feeling, I don't want anybody else to ever have to go through what I'm going through right now. Because this pain is unbearable," Washington said.

This story was originally published April 23, 2024, 4:15 PM.


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