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.
As social justice protests continue across America, there has been a push for a reckoning on the role of police in society as well as calls to defund or reimagine policing. Among those calls have been suggestions that police – who invariably show up in most parts of the country if you dial 911 for a mental health or substance abuse emergency – should not be the primary responders to non-violent, non-criminal emergency calls and that cities should devote greater resources to social services.
While police remain the first responders for those kinds of calls in Alexandria, they are not in some cities in America.
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.
I’ve been told by individuals that they’re very glad I didn’t show up in a police cruiser at their home and that they’re more likely to talk to me
Police encounters with mentally ill people can have deadly consequences: according to the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, people suffering from untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in interactions with law enforcement. Earlier this month in Utah, a 13-year-old boy with autism was shot several times by police after his mother dialed 911 to request help as her son was experiencing a mental breakdown.
In Alexandria two social workers are now on the police department’s payroll. But while working for the police, they are not cops: they do not have arresting powers and they do not carry weapons. They ride in a Ford Focus instead of a police cruiser. They wear polo shirts, not police uniforms, and carry a radio with a panic button in case they find themselves in danger.
“We’re like a non-threatening type of follow-up,” said Cassie Hensley, one of the department’s social workers. “I’ve been told by individuals that they’re very glad I didn’t show up in a police cruiser at their home and that they’re more likely to talk to me.”
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.
Police departments employing social workers are rare: in recent months, interest has spurged in Alexandria’s program – so much so that the department drew up an 11-page document explaining their use of police social workers to send to other departments that send inquiries.
Cooper, the Alexandria police chief, says the use of social workers helps reduce repeat emergency calls while also getting residents the help that police officers don’t have the skills, resources or time to provide.
He gave the example of a Vietnam war veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and would call 911 in the early hours of the morning after waking from nightmares.
“He just didn’t have anybody else – so all he knew to do was call 911 and he knew police would come and he would talk to them,” said Cooper.
Over the course of a year, the man called 911 about 60 times. When cops would show up and speak with him, he would calm down, but sometimes it could take hours, diverting away police resources at a time of day when few officers were on duty.
“We knew we weren’t solving the problem, we were just putting a Band-Aid on it every time he called,” said Cooper.
When the department hired on its first social worker in 2016, she was able to work with the man and connect him with medical treatment with Veterans Affairs. His calls to 911 stopped.
“These people end up calling the cops because they don’t know who else to call,” said Tara McLendon, an associate professor at Northern Kentucky University’s School of Social Work who helped the Alexandria police department devise its police social worker program. “And then mental illness symptoms fester and you end up in really horrible situations that I’m thinking we can prevent.”
After social workers connect with persons in the community who need their help, they ask that they call them directly instead of 911 for anything that is not an actual emergency.
These people end up calling the cops because they don’t know who else to call
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.
On Tuesday, Kentucky’s largest city, Louisville, said its police force would establish a social worker program. The move is part of a slew of promised police reforms in the city following the March police killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black 26-year-old ER tech whose name has been a rallying cry at racial justice protests in Kentucky and around the US.
“We often ask our police officers to not only keep the peace, but to deal with challenges that society has failed to address, from mental health to homelessness to substance abuse and everything in-between,” said Louisville’s mayor, Greg Fischer. “That’s not fair to our officers. It’s not the right way to address these challenges.
Neither Cooper nor Ward believe social workers can replace cops.
“Social workers do not supplant police officers – they augment,” said Ward. “So you’ve got to have a number of police officers necessary to cover calls of service in your community first and foremost.”
Jerry Ratcliffe, a former British police officer who is a criminal justice professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University, warned that replacing police with social workers is not as easy as some might hope.
“The sense that social workers are an order of magnitude better than police at dealing with some of these issues – I’m not certain there is strong evidence yet to support that, but I’m open to its possibility,” he said.
Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing, said police work and social work should be separated and that police officers should simply not be the first responders on many types of emergency calls.
“The police see the world through a lens where every encounter is potentially deadly,” he said.
Vitale warned that many – such as undocumented persons, people on probation and those who simply do not trust the criminal justice system and law enforcement – likely probably not be comfortable working with a social worker who is employed by a police force.
“Rather than trying to turn police departments into hubs for social work, we should just have more social workers doing social work,” he said.