Should social workers ride with police? This Connecticut woman does
Each workday morning at 6 a.m., Katharine “Kathy” Evans turns out for roll call at the Denver police department, to hear about overnight incidents, trends, announcements, plans for the day.
She then hops into a police car to begin a 12-hour shift. Her partner for the day is a patrol officer. She, however, does not wear a badge or carry a gun. She is a licensed clinical social worker.
Evans, a 28-year-old Connecticut native, is a member of Denver’s four-year-old co-responder program, in which trained clinicians ride along with police officers, to offer varied assistance to distraught persons and keep many of them from being inappropriately corralled into the criminal justice system.
In a year when the police killings of George Floyd and others have given rise to massive demonstrations and demands for less confrontational and more therapeutic policing, the co-responder model is gaining interest and attention. Other cities have sent emissaries to study Denver’s approach.
While Connecticut has a statewide crisis intervention program, albeit a different model than Denver’s, last summer’s major police reform bill included a provision that requires municipal departments to “evaluate the feasibility and potential impact of … using social workers to respond to calls for assistance (either remotely or in person) or go with a police officer on calls where a social worker’s experience and training could provide help.” Reports are due in January.
New Haven already is building a program that will allow public safety dispatchers to send clinicians directly to a call. And a push has just begun to shift some 911 calls to the 211 system.
The Denver program, formally called Denver Crisis Intervention Response Unit, is a partnership between the Denver police department and The Mental Health Center of Denver, Evans’s employer. The program deploys 21 clinicians over the city — 18, including Evans, with the police department and one each with the transportation district, sheriff’s department and fire department — in two 12-hour shifts.
When I get to a call, I let the officer make sure the situation is safe. Once I know there’s no concern about weapons, I am able to step in and speak with the person involved.”
From where Kathy Evans sits, it works.
Evans grew up in West Hartford, graduating from Conard High School and then Connecticut College, where she studied psychology and human development. She went to the University of Denver for her masters in social work, picking the Mile High City in large part because her sister lived there.
After earning her MSW in 2016, she worked for two years in an elementary school. That was fine, but she got interested in crisis response and wanted to work in the community. She heard abut the co-responder program from a friend during — what else — an Ultimate Frisbee game.
After roll call, she is assigned to a patrol officer, and the team begins answering calls for service, which could be anything from a person threatening suicide to a burglary. “A lot of calls are mental health-related when they don’t appear to be,” she said in a recent telephone interview.
“When I get to a call, I let the officer make sure the situation is safe. Once I know there’s no concern about weapons, I am able to step in and speak with the person involved in the situation … and figure out what the presenting concerns are at that moment.”
Once she gets the picture and discerns the person’s needs, she formulates the next step, which might be counseling, a walk-in crisis center, hospitalization, substance misuse treatment or referrals to community organizations to help meet basic needs such as food or shelter. Some needs aren’t readily apparent; she recently engaged a resident deeply distraught over the death of a partner and was able to call on a victim’s advocate to handle death services.
She said people who are experiencing a crisis do not necessarily have a history of mental health concerns but said most could benefit from mental health support. As might have been predicted, the COVID-19 pandemic has stressed more people out. “Since the start of the pandemic, I have noticed an increase in mental health-related calls for people both with and without a history of mental health concerns,” she said.
The co-responder program is keeping most of them out of the criminal justice system. Of the 2,263 persons engaged by the program’s clinicians in 2019, only 2% were arrested and another 2% received a ticket or citation, Evans said.
And keeping people out of the criminal justice system saves money. In 2018, the Associated Press reported that the co-responder program in Boulder County, Colo,. cost about $600,000 but saved the community an estimated $3 million annually by reducing incarcerations. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson once observed, “It costs more to go to jail than to go to Yale.”
Call the team
The need for social workers can be analogized to the saying about when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail.
As National Conference of State Legislatures blogger Amber Widgery explains it, people with mental illness are not more likely than anyone else to commit violent acts. “In fact, it is 10 times more likely that people with severe mental illness will be victims of a violent crime than the general population.”
However, bystanders “frequently call 911 when a person near them experiences a mental-health crisis, making it much more likely that a person in crisis will encounter law enforcement officers than mental health professionals.” If the officer is alone and not trained to deal with behavioral health crises, these confrontations can be dangerous.
This may partly explain why jails and prisons have a disproportionately high number of persons with mental health issues (see this study released last summer by the Connecticut Sentencing Commission).
I don’t think there’s a cop anywhere who would disagree that it’s good to have a social worker on some kinds of calls.”
The combined skills of the officer and the clinician create a different tool, a way to ease tense situations and connect people with behavioral health issues to appropriate services.
“I don’t think there’s a cop anywhere who would disagree that it’s good to have a social worker on some kinds of calls,” said Brian J. Foley, a former Hartford deputy police chief who now serves as executive assistant to state public safety commissioner James Rovella. Affirming Foley’s point in a recent telephone interview with both officials, Rovella said a person in the throes of a mental health event often finds a civilian less intimidating than a uniformed and armed officer.
The cop-clinician team is not a new idea; departments around the country have experimented with it for years. Hartford, for example, had its own four-person crisis response team four decades ago. “They were a great asset,” recalled former police chief Bernard Sullivan in a recent interview.
But the team dwindled, and Hartford now has a partnership with the state-run Capital Region Mental Health Center for crisis response assistance.
There are generally two approaches to clinical intervention: the Denver model, where an officer and a clinician ride together for a whole shift, and the crisis intervention team model, where a specialist is called to a scene and helps the officer handle the situation.
The latter model was brought to Connecticut two decades ago by New London police captain Ken Edwards. Currently, these are 18 mobile crisis intervention teams at state-run and nonprofit mental health facilities around the state, said Nydia Rios-Benitez of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which oversees the program. When needed they join a police officer at a scene; for example, Hartford officers can call in clinicians from the Capitol Region Mental Health Center.
While there are arguments for both approaches, they both achieve the goal of getting a clinician to a situation.
“They both work, they’re both great,” said Michael Lawlor, a lawyer and former legislator who served as undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning at the Office of Policy and Management under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and now teaches criminal justice at the University of New Haven.
There are many things police do that don’t require handcuffs and guns. For example, if you report a theft from a car, a uniform will come to write up a report. Why does it require a uniform? Why not trained crime scene investigators?”
Another aspect of the state’s program is training of individual officers. A nonprofit, the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement or CABLE, offers a 32-hour program to teach officers to recognize a mental health situation, communicate with the individual in crisis and direct the person to appropriate resources.
CABLE was founded in 2003 after a person with severe mental illness was shot and badly wounded by a police officer is what was described as an attempted “suicide-by-cop” incident. Since 2004, CABLE has trained some 3,000 public safety officers, so by now most departments have trained officers, said CABLE’s executive director Louise Pyers. The training is also offered to clinicians to acclimate them to police work.
Pyers said police training needs to be updated and advanced, to include mental health skill building and communication. Not doing so, she said, “does public safety officers a disservice.”
Lawlor thinks the new Congress will provide funds for new approaches to policing and that local departments “need to be thinking about how they can improve services.”
His department is. Lawlor lives in New Haven and serves on the police commission.
He is helping implement a program announced last summer by Mayor Justin Elicker that will allow specially trained public safety dispatchers to send clinicians or health professionals — a community response team — directly to a call, if the situation warrants, instead of a police officer or ambulance.
The concept, based on programs in Eugene, Ore., and elsewhere, will usually not involve calls about crime or medical emergencies but rather calls about behavioral health, substance abuse or necessities such as food and shelter. Officials hope to roll out a one-year pilot program in mid-2021.
Another change in the early discussion stage is moving some non-emergency 911 calls to the 211 Connecticut system. Though not as well known as its 911 counterpart, the 211 helpline, run by The United Way of Connecticut, gets more than a million calls a year, on everything from mental and physical health care to food, transportation, employment, legal matters, child care and utilities.
Connecticut has a “gold standard” 211 system that is statewide, 24/7 and offers information and referrals as well as crisis services, said Lisa Tepper Bates, president and CEO of United Way of Connecticut. With additional resources — a bill has just been introduced in Congress to add funding for 211 systems — she thinks 211 can play a larger role, helping police and mental health providers.
Stonington Police Chief J. Darren Stewart, head of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said moving some non-emergency calls to 211 could free up 911 for actual emergencies. “Now, we get 911 calls to ask if school’s been called off,” he said.
Bates, a Stonington resident and police commission member, said training officers in the resources available at 211 also could allow the officers to close out some 911 calls early and move on to the next call, by connecting the citizen to 211 services.
Stewart said the 211 idea is in the very early stages of discussion. He said it would require a major public information campaign, after decades of teaching the public to call 911, to move many of them to 211. “It would be a paradigm shift,” he said.
Lawlor concurs that “only a small percentage of 911 calls are for public safety,” and asked, “Can we find a better way to deal with these?” That might involve who responds to non-emergency calls.
“There are many things police do that don’t require handcuffs and guns. For example, if you report a theft from a car, a uniform will come to write up a report. Why does it require a uniform? Why not trained crime scene investigators?”
He said if this task were shifted to civilians, as is done in some parts of the country, it would free uniformed officers to respond to dangerous situations — and would save money.
So Kathy Evans appears to have caught a wave; change is coming in policing. The work is demanding and challenging, she learns something from every engagement, and she loves it: “It’s my dream job.”
And she is bringing her expertise back to Connecticut. She is serving as a consultant to her alma mater, Connecticut College, which is planning to add a clinician to its campus police force.
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