The Mental Health Unit Helps Citizens in Crisis 

Having a mental illness is not a crime. Unfortunately, many people with mental illnesses wind up in jail because they may not always be able to control their actions or perceive reality. Or, they may be committed under the Baker Act, a law which allows a person to be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility if they present a danger to themselves or others. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) Mental Health Unit (MHU) was created to reduce both Baker Acts and contact with law enforcement officers among the mentally ill.

The MHU pairs a specially trained deputy with a civilian Crisis Response Specialist to meet with citizens in mental health crisis that may warrant intervention. If a patrol deputy realizes that a citizen has a mental health issue and may be in need of services, they can contact the MHU. Or a team from the MHU may respond directly to a call about a person in crisis.

Once they make contact, the deputy will make sure the scene is secure. Then the Crisis Response Specialist will engage the subject, evaluating their mental state and determining their willingness to receive help. All of the services are voluntary.

MHU members will tell them about available services, especially the Pinellas Integrated Care (PIC). PIC can connect citizens to counseling, medication, substance abuse treatment, job services, housing, and insurance options. Navigating the world of mental health services can be difficult, for both patients and their families. The MHU tries to make a scary, chaotic situation as easy to manage as possible, removing the barriers to positive mental health management.

After the initial contact, PIC will usually follow up in three days. The MHU then meets with the PIC team once a week to discuss the clients they serve.

The MHU was expanded last year. Today there are six deputies and two Clearwater Police officers who pair with eight civilian Crisis Response Specialists. The program has been so successful that the MHU recently won the PCSO Unit Award for its excellent work.

It can be challenging, and sometimes disappointing. Clients who are enthusiastic in the beginning may stop using the services designed to help them. Many also have substance abuse issues that complicate their mental health care. But the many success stories make it worthwhile. Thanks to the MHU, more citizens with mental health issues are staying out of jail and receiving the services they need.

For more information about mental health education and support, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org. If you know a child or young adult experiencing a mental health crisis, you can contact the Pinellas Mobile Crisis Response Team at 727-362-4424. For an emergency situation, as always, call 911.

Posted by Laura Sullivan Friday, May 20, 2022 10:58:00 AM

The SafetyNet Tracking System 

According to the National Crime Information Center missing persons database, 521,705 people were reported missing in the US in 2021. Of those, 29,393 were considered to be in the “disabled” category. This includes people of all ages who have a mental or physical disability which puts them at risk to themselves or others.

Our children and our elderly are among the most precious – and the most vulnerable – members of the community. Unfortunately, certain conditions can put some citizens at a higher risk of going missing. Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly and developmental disorders such as autism in younger people can cause them to wander.

For the past ten years we’ve been using radio frequency technology to help locate missing people. Now the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) has a new tool to help bring your loved ones safely home even more quickly. Thanks to a new three-year federal grant, we’ve been able to expand our partnership with SafetyNet Tracking Systems to help reunite vulnerable missing people with their families and caregivers. This partnership with SafetyNet could dramatically reduce the recovery time for missing people. Simply put, this will save lives.

These new devices resemble a smart watch, and are primarily worn on the wrist. One of the features is the ability to set up a geofence. A caregiver determines what area they would consider a safe zone – a perimeter around the home, school, or other safe place. The device is enabled with GPS tracking that will alert an administrator if their loved one wanders away from the safe zone. This allows your loved one to be located quickly.

The SafetyNet Tracking System will be available to residents of Pinellas County who are in need. Soon, citizens will be able to apply via the PCSO website, www.pcsoweb.com. There is no cost to the user or their caregivers.

Health and developmental conditions can complicate rescue. A dementia patient may not respond to a call if they forget their own name. Autistic children can have a diminished fear response, and might go places other people would avoid, such as busy highways, dense woods, or muddy swamps. Many autistic children seem drawn to water, and drowning is heartbreakingly frequent among missing autistic children. Autistic children will sometimes ignore rescuers, and could even hide to avoid them.

These risks aren’t confined to the old or young. Dementia has many causes, and can happen at any age. Autistic adults are also vulnerable. SafetyNet is for any citizen who is at risk of wandering because of dementia, autism, or other cognitive or mental disorders.

Is there a person in your life who is vulnerable to wandering into danger? Keep an eye on the PCSO website for information on how to apply for a SafetyNet tracker.

Posted by Laura Sullivan Thursday, April 7, 2022 9:15:00 AM

IRS Tax Safety Tips 

With tax season upon, the stress of filing taxes can cloud judgement and leave taxpayers vulnerable to becoming victims of fraud. To avoid becoming a victim of a tax scam, you have to know how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would typically initiate contact with you.

Under most circumstances, the IRS will contact you via standard mail. In special circumstances, they may have someone call or visit your home or business. Some of the special circumstances, include but are not limited to: an overdue tax bill, an open criminal investigation, or to secure a delinquent tax return. Before the IRS makes a phone call or an in-person visit, you would have received multiple notices in the mail.

Criminals that are impersonating the IRS can be aggressive and sophisticated. From using fake names to counterfeit IRS identification badge numbers, the method in which scammers try to coerce payments is not a method used by actual IRS employees. Scammers will always try to instill a sense of fear and urgency in order to get what they want. Before you give in, take a moment to evaluate the legitimacy of what they’re asking for and the method of payment they are requesting.

Unlike scammers, the IRS will never demand a specific form of payment, like a prepaid debit card, gift card, or wire transfer. They will also never require immediate payment or threaten to bring local police, immigration officers, or other law enforcement agencies to arrest you for not paying. In fact, the IRS cannot revoke a license or immigration status. Threatening you with law enforcement action is just one of the many ways scammers try to instill fear.

The IRS assigns overdue tax debts to private debt collection agencies. Before a debt collection agency calls, the IRS would have sent you, the taxpayer, a letter letting you know that the debt has been turned over to one of the private agencies. The IRS only uses the following private collection agencies (PCAs): CBE Group, Coast Professional, and ConServe. Only one of the aformentioned agencies will contact you about the tax debt that was turned over, not all of them at once. If they contact you, remember that PCA representatives will never ask for a prepaid gift card, they will never take law enforcement action, and most importantly, they will only ask for payments to go to the U.S. Treasury

As you prepare to file your taxes this year, remember, the IRS will never contact you via email, text messages, social media, or demand immediate payments. If you’re unsure if you owe money to the U.S. Treasury, you can check your tax account by visiting: http://www.irs.gov/payments/view-your-tax-account.

If you believe that you or someone you know has been a victim of a scam, contact the PCSO at 727-582-6200.

Posted by Laura Sullivan Tuesday, March 15, 2022 9:13:00 AM

Gift Card Scams 

Your phone rings. It’s an unfamiliar number, but you answer anyway. The caller advises you of an urgent situation. In order to prevent “something bad” from happening, they demand payment immediately – in the form of one or several gift cards. They tell you which gift card to buy and may even direct you to a specific store to purchase it. The caller insists on staying on the phone with you during the transaction. Once you purchase the card, they request the gift card number and PIN to expedite the process.

Does this scenario sound familiar? It’s a textbook gift card scam.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) and our law enforcement partners have been inundated with gift card scam cases and need your help to prevent your friends, family, and neighbors from becoming a victim.

Aside from the method of payment, the stories behind gift card scams are not dissimilar to other common scams. The person on the other end of the phone pretends to be someone they’re not. They may identify themselves as a representative from the Internal Revenue Service, support technician from a computer company, customer service representative from your utility company, or even a friend or family member in trouble.

Gift cards are so popular with scammers because unlike other payment methods, there are far fewer protections for buyers and they are readily available in most stores. Like cash, once they have the gift card information in hand – the money is gone.

Remember the following tips to avoid becoming a victim:

  • No government agency or legitimate business will contact you and require payment with gift cards.
  • Gift cards are for gifts. When purchasing a gift card, only buy them from reputable stores and make sure it has not been tampered with.
  • Don’t answer phone calls from numbers that you don’t recognize. If it’s legitimate and it’s important they will leave a message.
  • If you’re contacted by someone claiming to be a family member or friend in trouble, try to contact them by traditional means to verify.

If you believe that you or someone you know has been a victim of a scam, contact the PCSO at 727-582-6200.

Posted by Verliz Williams Tuesday, February 1, 2022 12:39:00 PM

Shopping Safety 

December is upon us and Christmas will be here before we know it.  If you’ve made your list, but haven’t checked it twice, time is running out to get your shopping done.  The number of people shopping online was already increasing exponentially each year before the pandemic, but now it has become even more commonplace.

Most online retailers have more products to choose from and having access to their inventory that can be shipped directly to you or your loved ones helps alleviate an already stressful time. However, there are some online retailers that have no products to offer because their intent is to steal your money – and that can cause a great deal of stress.  The rise of online shopping has made it easier than ever for scammers to steal your money, but if you follow these simple tips, online shopping can be the safest and most convenient way to shop:  

Verify you’re visiting a legitimate website: Reputable companies offer several layers of protection on their website which creates a safe shopping experience. You can verify the legitimacy of a site by ensuring that the company’s name is correctly spelled in the website address and looking for a lock icon in the web address bar. Use caution when clicking on links to websites sent to you via e-mail.

Be careful with your personal information: Scammers may try to contact you and ask for your personal information. They may say that they are trying to “verify” an account or looking to “correct an order,” but don’t buy it.

Use a single payment method: Watching your bank statements for fraudulent activity can be a difficult task, especially with the large amount of purchases during the holidays. Using a single source of payment, preferably one credit card for all purchases, can simplify that process and help safeguard your personal finances.

Criminals are always looking for an easy target and by taking some precautions you can ensure that you aren’t one of them. Remember if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

On behalf of all 2,800 members of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, I wish you a safe and happy holiday season.

Posted by Verliz Williams Monday, January 3, 2022 1:29:00 PM

Crime Stoppers: Solving Crime, One Tip At A Time 

When DNA evidence is contaminated or additional evidence is limited, how do detectives solve the case? It was a question that Detective Greg MacAleese from the Albuquerque Police Department had in the summer of 1976 when he was assigned the case of Michael Carmen, a local college student who was robbed and shot to death while working at a gas station.

Months after the murder of Carmen, MacAleese and his colleagues still had no leads. With limited evidence, MacAleese grew frustrated. He knew that someone had information that would lead to an arrest, but he needed to figure out how he could get that information.

In the hopes that it would establish a lead, MacAleese produced a video re-enactment of the homicide and had the clip air on a local television station. In the re-enactment, he also guaranteed anonymity and a cash reward to anyone who could provide information leading to an arrest. Following the airing of the video, MacAleese received a tip that led to the arrest of two suspects within 72 hours. Both suspects were charged with the murder of Michael Carmen and a string of armed robberies.

Due to MacAleese’s determination to solve Carmen’s murder and his innovative thinking, Crime Stoppers was established on September 8th, 1976. The program was built on the partnership between local law enforcement agencies, the public, and the media, to help solve cases. Crime Stoppers also gave members of the public an opportunity to submit tips anonymously and be rewarded if their tip led to an arrest.

Today, Crime Stoppers is an international program with coordinators all over the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and the South/Western Pacific. Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County was formed in January of 2001. Currently, Jamie Smith, serves as the Crime Stoppers Coordinator for Pinellas County and she is assigned within the Public Relations Bureau of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

“The fact that the community can submit tips, remain anonymous, and be rewarded if the tip leads to an arrest is pretty significant in helping law enforcement with their investigations,” Smith said.

More than 40 years later, Crime Stoppers continues to rely on the cooperation of local law enforcement agencies, the community, and the media to provide information to help solve cases. Last year, about 60 tips helped lead to an arrest throughout the county. Although Smith works out of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, she vets tips for local law enforcement agencies countywide.

Every day, in addition to reviewing tips, Smith also works on determining if submitted tips led to an arrest or were determined to be unfounded. Tips that lead to an arrest are eligible for a monetary reward. The amount is calculated by a software program based on several variables including the type of crime, number of charges, and the suspect’s overall risk to the community. Before the reward is given to the tipster, however, it is approved by the Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County Board of Directors, which is made up of members of the community including Smith.

Once approved, the tipster is able to claim their reward at a local bank by providing their unique tip number and password given to them at the initial submission of the tip.

While Smith reviews hundreds of tips each year, one she received in February of last year stands out. The St. Petersburg Police Department had published a news release asking for the community’s help in identifying a suspect in a double homicide. Soon after, Crime Stoppers received a tip that detailed the clothes that the suspect had on. After forwarding the tip to St. Petersburg detectives, they managed to find the suspect’s clothes in a dumpster just 30 minutes before Waste Management was scheduled to empty the dumpster. Without the tip and a quick response from detectives, one of the most compelling pieces of evidence would have been destroyed and the case may have gone cold.

“Knowing that a bad guy is taken off the street based on an anonymous tip is the most rewarding part of my job,” Smith said. “Another, is being able to be a small piece of the puzzle in one of the most important parts of an investigation, which is gathering tips and potential leads.” To date, tips through Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County have led to over 1,100 arrests and more than $300,000 in rewards.

If you have information pertaining to a crime, you can contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS or submit a tip online by visiting http://www.crimestoppersofpinellas.org/.

If you don’t have a tip to submit, but are interested in being a part of the Board of Directors you can call Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County at 727-582-5806. 

Posted by Verliz Williams Monday, January 3, 2022 1:29:00 PM

The Move Over Law 

First responders regularly put themselves in harm’s way to serve others. Law enforcement officers, firefighters, and paramedics respond to vehicle crashes and other incidents to render aid. Their frequent presence on the side of a busy roadway is one of the most dangerous parts of their jobs.

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, last year alone there were 159 crashes as a result of a driver failing to move over. Fortunately, none of those crashes resulted in a fatality, but four victims suffered incapacitating injuries.

While the dangers of working along busy roadways have always been present, the Mover Over Law has not. Enacted in 2002, it requires that drivers move over as soon as it is safe to do so for any authorized law enforcement, emergency, or service vehicles displaying any visible signals while stopped on the roadside. This includes road rangers, public utility vehicles, and tow trucks. Although there is some version of the law in all 50 states, many motorists are still unaware of it. In 2020, more than 12,000 violators were issued citations for failing to move over in the State of Florida.

Take some time to familiarize yourself with the requirements of the law to make sure that you are not putting first responders and other service providers in danger:

  • On multi-lane roadways, vacate the lane closest to the stopped authorized vehicle. If you cannot safely move over, slow down to 20 miles per hour below the posted speed limit.
  • On two-lane roadways, slow down to a speed of 20 miles per hour below the posted speed limit. If the speed limit is 20 miles per hour, travel at 5 miles per hour.
  • Always be cognizant of other vehicles that may be attempting to move over or slow down.

Staying alert behind the wheel and following a few simple rules could prevent serious injury and save lives. 

Posted by Verliz Williams Monday, January 3, 2022 1:23:00 PM

Senior Care 

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in every nine people aged 65 and older has Alzheimer’s disease, and one in every three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Alzheimer’s and dementia are not only crippling conditions, but they also increase the chances of an elderly person going missing or getting into an accident. Caring for a loved one who suffers from memory loss or confusion can be a challenging task, but the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has several tips to help ensure seniors stay safe.

  1. Stay Informed

Keeping up-to-date information about seniors in your care is important and can help protect them when a crisis occurs. Whether your aging parent or friend has dementia, hearing loss, or other ailments, it’s crucial to identify the risks involved with their physical or psychological illnesses. Take them to routine doctor visits to ensure accurate diagnoses so that they can receive the care they need.

  1. Actively Prevent Accidents

It is terrifying to realize a loved one has gone missing. If you are concerned the senior in your care could potentially leave home without your knowledge, sign them up for SafetyNET. The program provides a personalized wristband that emits a tracking signal to help locate them. Recovery times for program participants average 30 minutes.

The Take Me Home program is another option if they are unable to effectively communicate with others. By providing the sheriff’s office with a recent photo, description of their physical characteristics, and emergency contact information, law enforcement can identify them and bring them back home safely. The Take Me Home program is free, and all of the recorded information about your loved one is confidential.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office uses these programs within their service area. SafetyNET tracking is also offered by the Clearwater and Largo Police Departments. You can purchase or lease SafetyNET Tracking Systems online at www.safetynettracking.com or by calling (877) 434-6384. To enroll in the Take Me Home program, contact the Crime Prevention and Community Awareness Unit by calling (727) 582-2222.

  1. Ask for Help

Taking on the responsibility of being a full-time caregiver can be a daunting task. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from friends or family members or enroll your senior in an adult day program. Do everything you can to ensure your loved one is in capable hands.  

 

 

Posted by Michelle Whiting Friday, October 1, 2021 1:18:00 PM

Drowsy Driving  

On September 5, 2008, 8 year old Ronshay Dugans was on the way to an afterschool program when the driver of a cement truck fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed into the back of her school bus. Ronshay was killed in the crash. Two years later, the Florida Legislature passed the Ronshay Dugans Act that designated the first week of September as “Drowsy Driving Prevention Week.”

A survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, found that at least 50% of adults have admittedly driven while drowsy, and 20% have fallen asleep at the wheel. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration there are about 100,000 reported crashes involving drowsy driving; however, the number is likely significantly higher since it is difficult to determine whether a driver was drowsy at the time of a crash.

Like drunk driving, drowsy driving kills. Prescription medications, lack of sleep, work, undiagnosed disorders like sleep apnea, and jet-lag can cause drowsiness. Drowsiness impacts your reaction time, decreases awareness of your surroundings, and impairs your judgement.

Before hitting the road, make sure you get enough sleep (seven to nine hours for adults, eight to ten for teenagers) and confirm that any medications you take don’t cause drowsiness. For longer trips, schedule stops every 100 miles or every two hours and ask a friend to tag along to help you stay awake and focused.

Once you’re behind the wheel, monitoring yourself for warning signs of drowsiness is crucial. Some common warning signs are frequent blinking, difficulty focusing on the road, having trouble remembering the last few miles driven, drifting from your lane, and the feeling of restlessness or disconnected thoughts. If you notice yourself experiencing any of these pull over to a safe place to get some rest, stretch, or get a caffeinated beverage. Once you feel alert and refreshed it’s safe to continue driving.

Crashes caused by drowsiness are 100% preventable. The rush to get to where you’re going is not worth risking your safety and the safety of others. Taking the time to check your alertness could save you from a potentially life changing accident.

Posted by Verliz Williams Wednesday, September 1, 2021 8:35:00 AM

Pedestrian Safety 

So far this year, we’ve responded to 33 pedestrian related crashes. Pedestrians and drivers are equally responsible in preventing accidents. With school resuming and traffic expected to increase again, practicing these tips in your community will help keep you and others safe.

For pedestrians:

  • Be predictable: Following the rules of the road and obeying signs and signals will help drivers identify when you’re going to move and where you’ll be going.
  • Be alert: Limit your use of electronic devices to help minimize the amount of distractions that could take your eyes off your surroundings.
  • Be visible: Whether you’re walking during the day or night make sure you are visible to drivers. Be sure to make eye contact as you cross and wear clothing that would increase your visibility.
  • Cross with caution: Be sure to utilize crosswalks and cross at intersections where drivers would expect pedestrians. If there’s no crosswalk available, locate an area that’s well-lit and cross only when there is enough time to cross safely. Look for cars in all directions, including turn lanes.

For drivers:

  • Be aware: Watch for pedestrians everywhere, especially when you’re driving while visibility is limited.
  • Look for Crosswalks: When driving, be prepared to yield to pedestrians entering a crosswalk. Never pass vehicles who are stopped at crosswalks. There could be pedestrians crossing that aren’t in your field of vision until it’s too late.
  • Be a safe driver: Adhering to the basic rules of the road, observing the speed limit, and never driving under the influence will dramatically decrease your chance of being involved in a pedestrian accident.

Whether you’re behind a wheel or on foot, ensuring you maintain a courteous and attentive attitude while you’re on your way will help minimize your chance of being in a 100% avoidable accident.

If you think your community is in need of additional pedestrian infrastructure, contact your local Public Works Department. 

Posted by Verliz Williams Tuesday, August 3, 2021 9:22:00 AM
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