Sunday, September 20, 2020

The US police department that decided to hire social workers

Josh Wood in Alexandria, Kentucky
Sat 19 Sep 2020 05.00 EDT

The Alexandria police chief, Mike Ward, was “sick and tired” of sending his officers to respond to 911 calls that they lacked the skills and time to handle. In this small Kentucky town of 10,000 people 15 miles south of Cincinnati, Ohio, two-thirds of the calls police responded to were not criminal – instead, they were mental health crises and arguments resulting from long-brewing interpersonal conflicts.

Police would show up, but they could rarely offer long-lasting solutions. Often, it was inevitable that they would be called back to the same address for the same problem again and again.

“We’ve been tasked – sometimes unjustifiably – with solving the problems of our community,” said Ward, who retired last year. “Just call the police, they’ll take care of it. And we can’t do that. It’s unrealistic.”

In 2016 he decided to try a new approach: he talked the city into hiring a social worker for the police department. “To an officer, they all thought I was batshit crazy,” he said of the police.

The current police chief, Lucas Cooper, said he was “the most vocal opponent” of the plan at the time, thinking that the department should be using its budget to hire more officers for a force he viewed as stretched thin. But now four years later, Cooper sees the program as indispensable: it frees officers from repeat calls for non-criminal issues and gets residents the help they needed, but couldn’t get.


Operating for more than three decades, the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets program in Eugene, Oregon, dispatches a medic and a crisis worker instead of a police officer to non-violent calls involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction. In Dallas, three-person teams made up of a paramedic, a social worker from a local hospital and a police officer are dispatched to mental health calls in the south central part of the city. A number of other cities across the US are either putting together or considering similar programs.


The social workers in Alexandria are not first responders. Instead, they follow up with people who have had interactions with police or they respond to a call after police officers have made sure the scene is safe for them to enter.

They work with a wide range of people, from persons suffering from mental illness and substance abuse to the homeless and indigent. They also act as advocates for survivors of domestic violence and other crimes.


Adding social workers is cheaper than adding on new officers: while a new officer would cost the department around $100,000 up front, adding a new social worker – who does not need to be equipped with a weapon or kitted-out cruiser – costs about half of that, according to Ward.


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