DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — On the outside, emergency services in our counties may look the same as they were before the pandemic, but that doesn't mean changes haven't happened on the inside.
A year ago, the Delray Beach Police Department entered a partnership with South County Mental Health Center to offer around-the-clock crisis intervention while out on calls. But the partnership wasn't immune to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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At the weekly shower truck event in Delray Beach, a group of homeless men recently enjoy a fresh haircut and a shower.
"It's definitely rewarding work," said Community Outreach Officer Damien Ferraiolo with the Delray Beach Police Department.
But Ferraiolo knows what's on the inside is also important.
"We notice that there is the need for more mental health services," Ferraiolo said.
Events like the weekly shower truck, put on by the InterFaith Committee, are just one way Delray Beach police officers help connect with the community and offer resources.
Last year, the Delray Beach Police Department partnered with the South County Mental Health Center to put a mobile response team or MRT at the police station around the clock.
"If we got any kind of the crisis calls, the mobile response team member was able to jump into the car with one of the officers. Sometimes during the evening hours, they would even ride around with an officer," Ferraiolo said.
Crisis intervention calls were tag-teamed, but the impacts of COVID-19 caught up to the mental health field.
"The pandemic created kind of a shortage not only in the mental health field but also everywhere," said Mario Gutierrez, supervisor for the mobile response team at the South County Mental Health Center. "We do not close. We are a 24/7 unit."
Gutierrez said more crises led to moving staff out of the police station and around the county to fill the gaps.
"Because of the call volume increase, we had to open an agency in Belle Glade and North Palm Beach, so we needed all that staff working together in different units," Gutierrez said.
Statistics tell the story.
Data from the county medical examiner's office shows this year suicides in Palm Beach County are up 31% compared to 2020.
"We have the school system calling. We have the 211. We have the suicide hotline, everybody from the community calling," added Gutierrez.
Gutierrez said six more staff members would put the unit back at full capacity. But even now he says, if on the outside the MRT looks stretched, on the inside it doesn't skip a beat.
"When the police need somebody there at the station, we comply with it," Gutierrez said.
Day to day, Ferraiolo said police officers are having to take on different roles.
"I'd say 40 to 60 percent of the calls we deal with have some kind of mental health component involved in it," Ferraiolo said.
In addition to crisis intervention training at the police department, sometimes he puts on gloves to cut hair for the homeless too.
"I just try to make every encounter that I can with the public a great encounter," Ferraiolo said.
Ferraiolo said the hope is that the MRT unit will permanently return to the police department soon.
"It was a big help having them on those kinds of calls," he added.
The South County Mental Health mobile response team units work with all police departments in southern Palm Beach County. Its partnership with Delray Beach Police, having personnel on sight at the police station every day, was the first of its kind.