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St. Louis team of ‘Purple Shirts’ diverts police intervention

An illustration of a person with a box over their head talking about mental health.
Joe Anderson
Special to NPR
The team of social workers is known in the community as the “Purple Shirts,” a description given due to the primary color they wear. The behavioral teams operate seven days a week with three units across the city.

Whether it’s ensuring city residents have the proper guidance for filling out paperwork at libraries or being present to help individuals work through domestic situations or mental health episodes — a team of first responders from St. Louis’ Behavioral Health Response team is working to make sure all needs are being met during police calls.

Under the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, the Community Centered Crisis & Response Team was launched last year. It consists of behavioral health clinicians who are embedded into the 911 call center and sometimes tag along with police to assist with non-police interventions to address the social, behavioral health and mental health needs of community residents.

The team came about after learning there was a need to have more community involvement to address some of the mental and emotional needs in the community, said BHR’s Justice & Crisis Response Vice President Felicia Spratt.

“There were a lot of calls that the CRU (Crisis Response Team) was going on that police didn’t necessarily need to get involved in,” Spratt said. “Not every response needed police and civilians.” So C3RT was created to help handle low-level calls for assistance, she said.

The team has space for eight but is currently composed of four individuals who also receive requests for service through emails sent to St. Louis Mayor Tishuara Jones’ office, Spratt said. One must have either a bachelor’s or master's degree in psychology, social work or criminal justice to join the C3RT team, as well as complete C3RT certification training that can last up to six weeks.

Calls for service can vary, Spratt said.

“A lot of these are likely calls about security risks, where somebody says ‘hey, somebody is talking through my vents,’ or just a lot of mental health psychosis, or a lot of individuals who are experiencing some type of medication concern and they need to go to the hospital,” Spratt said. “Our primary job is actually to divert individuals from hospitalization and from the jail and actually get them connected to more appropriate forms of services.”

The team of social workers is known in the community as the “Purple Shirts,” a description given due to the primary color they wear. Dark purple is for CRU members, lavender purple is for the C3RT team, dark blue purple is for crisis diversion specialists, and light blue is worn by the care team.

The behavioral teams operate seven days a week with three units across the city. According to OVP Director Wilford Pinkney Jr., the team’s goal is to improve public safety by addressing underlying conditions that contribute to crime.

Violent crime in the St. Louis region hit itslowest mark in a decade last year, and city leaders credit police efforts with the overall decline. As city leaders continue regional efforts to decrease crime, St. Louis was also included in the recent announcement by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland for a new $78 million initiative to fund community violence and intervention programs and research around the country.

Spratt said the Crisis Response Unit, also known as CRU, has been around since February 2021 and has helped over 17,000 St. Louisans. About 500 of those cases are repeats, she said.

“We also have certified crisis specialists that are embedded in the comm center with [police] and are actually in calls, and actually diverting calls from actually going to the police in order to make sure that actually just remain safer,” Spratt said. “These individuals are actually dispatched from our clinician sets in the dispatch center to go out and handle those much lower level calls.”

These clinicians sometimes ride in the car with police officers to assist with behavioral matters, Spratt said. The C3RT team is a first-of-its-kind street triage co-responder model where trained clinicians partner with a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officer.

The clinicians typically respond to behavioral health-related calls, navigating incidents involving mental health, substance use, trauma, quality of life events, self-sufficiency incidents and more.

On the scene

Mike Johnson, a certified peer specialist at Behavioral Health Response, is typically stationed at the Carpenter Library on South Grand Boulevard. He said the top concerns people usually have are getting help paying electric bills and housing assistance. Sometimes people are seeking help in domestic violence situations while others need help with their ID cards.

Most times people get connected to the purple shirts by seeking help from librarians, he said. “As the seasons change, so does the amount of traffic,” Johnson said. “They may be in the middle of a crisis and a public safety officer or park ranger may bring them to me or they may get in touch with me [directly] and see if I'm able to come and work with the individual,” Johnson said. “The main thing is just always trying to meet the individual where they are. And once you kind of get in and assess the situation, see what kind of barriers are standing in their way, you can work with them side by side to overcome those barriers. You don't have to come in and just ask for the purple shirts, you can talk to any of the staff members, and they can always guide you to where you can receive assistance.”

Johnson said substance use disorders for fentanyl have also been prevalent as people have been looking to abstain or utilize harm reduction methods.

High emotional situations are handled in real time at the scene, according to crisis clinician Charnique King, who sometimes rides with police officers to address situations. There are currently seven C3RT police vehicles — three are reserved for C3RT, three are reserved for the care coordinating team, and the last one is for usage in the community.

“[This includes] people who maybe don't have access to their medication, or they’re unmedicated,” King said. “And now they're like, ‘Oh, I'm fine, I don't need to take those anymore.’ And their family members are scared.”

She said she gets a lot of calls to assist people without housing and work to link them with the appropriate services. Disagreements between mothers and daughters and roommates, as well as navigating cases of destroyed property, also come up.

“And then I think outside of that, it's a lot of domestic disturbances lately,” King said. “People maybe just not [having] conflict resolution skills.”

Spratt said of the cases handled by C3RT so far, 98% of jail cases have been diverted and 92% of hospitalizations have been diverted for better outcomes.

“They avoid court fees and any lawyer fees too,” Spratt said. “Public safety, plus public health, equals public wellness. That’s the difference we’ve made in making sure the public is well.”

Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.