Criminal Justice Update
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Criminal Justice Update

Help for Agencies Big and Small

Like police departments everywhere, the police departments in Delhi Township and Reynoldsburg are lean and their budgets limited.

Still, both have made an investment they expect will better serve their residents and give officers more time for fighting crime: They hired social workers.

Some police departments have used social workers for decades, but the practice never spread widely. Against a backdrop of civil unrest and demands for reforms, however, departments in recent years have increasingly begun relying on social workers to supply services that officers were not intended to provide but were often asked to — those involving behavioral health, mental health, homelessness, family disputes, and drug and alcohol addiction, for example.

“Anecdotally, I can definitely tell you that’s what’s happening,” said Melissa Stone, a senior social worker with the Bloomington Police Department in Indiana who last year organized the inaugural National Conference on Police Social Work.

Stone said she isn’t aware of definitive statistics on the number of departments that employ social workers, but said she consults practically every week with police agencies that are considering hiring one. “That’s one of the big reasons we created the conference in the first place,” she said.

Although some police departments use social workers as part of a co-response team to defuse potentially violent crises, the broader trend, Stone said, especially among smaller departments, is to use social workers to follow up on referrals from officers concerning non-violent residents who need community services. This serves two purposes: It addresses residents’ specific needs and reduces the number of repeat calls.

image1-(2).jpeg“I wish all police departments would have a Kaylee Vicarssocial worker on staff,” said Community Advocate Kaylee Vicars (far right), who was hired this year by Delhi Township, a suburb of about 30,000 residents west of Cincinnati. “I feel it’s so beneficial to the community to have someone to handle situations that aren’t necessarily criminal but where people still need somebody to talk to.”

Vicars has a master’s degree in criminal justice and is completing her master’s in social work. Each workday is different, she said. One day she might follow up with a resident who has returned home from the hospital after suffering a psychiatric emergency; the next, she might help a resident solve a utility problem.

Police agencies in larger cities, with larger budgets, tend to employ social workers more often than agencies in smaller communities, Stone said. As an alternative, some agencies find it more economical to contract with companies for such services. Either way, there’s a cost involved.

“A lot of communities can’t even afford to hire the cops they need,” said Deputy Chief Rhonda Grizzell of the Reynoldsburg Police Department, an agency with about 70 officers in the eastern suburbs of Columbus. “So it’s definitely a luxury to have a social worker, and it’s very forward-thinking of our mayor to support the idea.”

The Reynoldsburg PD hired a social worker for its staff in September 2021 and found there was enough need among the city’s 37,500 residents to justify a second position, which it is currently filling. Both positions are funded through the police budget, but neither comes at the expense of an officer’s slot.

“We could never cut an officer position,” Grizzell said. “We need every single one we can get. At the end of the day, we’re a law enforcement agency. That’s our primary role. But having a social worker on staff is a way to cut down on repeat calls and look at problems with a more holistic, long-term solution.”

Delhi Township Police Chief James Howarth, who oversees about 30 officers, said he sought grants to fund the community advocate position that Vicars eventually filled, but had no luck. In turn, he appealed to township trustees. They consulted with police departments across the river in Erlanger and Alexandria, Kentucky, about the success of their social workers, then added the position in the township budget.

Since starting in February, Vicars has handled almost 200 cases, most of them referred to her by officers in the department, and feedback has been good. In addition, residents in need of community services have begun to call her directly.  
“That’s one of the goals of the position,” she said, “and a key reason for our outreach efforts — so people who need help with services in the area can contact me directly instead of calling for an officer to come out.”