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    Police chief refocuses department priorities

    In reactivating the community relations and services unit, attention is directed toward helping the mentally ill and protecting seniors.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 13, 2001

    LARGO -- Shortly after arriving in Largo, police Chief Lester Aradi decided he would revive the city's community relations and services unit.

    The unit had been out of commission for at least 18 months, after it suffered a round of retirements. Instead of filling those positions, the chief's predecessor decided the duties associated with them should be a part of all officers' responsibilities.

    Trouble was, community policing duties fell by the wayside as other issues took priority.

    Aradi, who joined the department in February, has taken steps to change that.

    He has established a community relations and services unit and created one full-time position and, for now, two part-time positions. The unit intends to go further than just developing crime prevention and neighborhood watch programs.

    The department will pinpoint two keys areas: seniors, who represent about 30 percent of Largo's population, according to U.S. census data, and residents with mental health problems. Often, mentally ill residents are trapped in a revolving door at area hospitals and jails, said Sgt. Mike Short, the department's community services supervisor.

    The change in community policing reflects Aradi's philosophy.

    "I'm trying to address a broader base than just neighborhoods," Aradi said. "Seniors are vulnerable to a certain criminal element that other populations are not, and we need to provide them a broader base of crime prevention."

    The department is seeking approval for a new program called Keeping Independent Seniors Safe, or KISS. If approved, the department would use volunteers to keep in touch with seniors in Largo. The volunteers would occasionally check on the city's senior residents and make sure all of their policing needs are being met, Short said.

    As for the mentally ill, Aradi wants to provide more alternatives than jail. What happens, he said, is that someone is admitted to a local hospital under the Baker Act and hours or days later they are commiting a crime again.

    "We have no other alternative to deal with them other than to put them in the criminal justice system . . . when it isn't necessarily the best course of action," Aradi said.

    The department often finds itself wedged in the middle of a situation involving the mentally ill. Officers want to help but are unable to provide alternatives. Part of the duties of a mental health resource officer would be finding out what mental health resources are available to the mentally ill so that the department can make suggestions.

    The three officers assigned to the department are: Short, who is the unit's supervisor; Officer Rayshall Poinsette, who will serve as the department's first senior services officer; and Officer Lara Williams, who will become the department first mental health officer.

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