Crime and Justice

NEK agency looks to embed social workers with police

Tomasz Jankowski, CEO of Northeast Kingdom Human Services, rides along with a Vermont State Police trooper recently. His nonprofit wants to embed two social workers with police agencies in the Northeast Kingdom. Provided photo

A Northeast Kingdom social services nonprofit plans to resume a program to embed workers within regional law enforcement agencies, a move mirroring efforts across the state and the national discourse on policing.

Northeast Kingdom Human Services, the state-designed agency for mental health programs in the region, is looking to fill two positions in the new program, which began in early July. Those future workers will embed with the Vermont State Police barracks in Derby and the Newport Police Department.

The social services agency had already had partnerships with local law enforcement, in which social workers would respond to police calls, said Marcia Stricker, chief of clinical operations.

But the new program would place specialists directly within police departments, able to go with officers to calls.

The idea is twofold: The nonprofit’s workers can de-escalate situations and can work with people afterward to prevent further police interactions when unnecessary. 

“They ride with them, they walk the streets with them, they’ll check on individuals who may or may not be struggling,” said Tonya Davis, emergency services program manager for the nonprofit. 

Davis leads the team of social workers who embed with police. Four positions already existed within the previous program (with one vacancy), and soon she hopes to add the two new embeds to the team.

“It’s more preventative work,” Davis said. “Trying to keep individuals … from going into crisis.”

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Davis explained that after police ensure a scene is safe, officers will step back and allow the social workers to talk with individuals.

“We’re going in and we’re able to evaluate … what can secure the safety of that person or other people involved,” Davis said. “And the next day we can follow right up.”

Many police calls have a mental health component, Davis said, where the person involved needs help improving their situation. But “that’s not the role of police,” she said.

And the arrival of uniformed officers with guns and badges can make already unstable people more prone to crisis. 

Davis gave the example of a domestic dispute: “Instead of the police intervening, which could typically lead to more things, they would send the embedded worker up to try to have a conversation … which would lessen the severity of the situation.”

Newport Police Chief Travis Bingham said he hopes the new positions can be filled. 

“The intervention that happens on the spot is pretty key for a lot of these people that are in crisis situations,” Bingham said.

He said having an embedded worker would help his officers avoid time-consuming cases and avoid escalation.

“It can be a drain on resources for any police department,” he said. “I think all of us have spent several hours and days sitting with patients (and) responding to the same residences over and over and over again for somebody who is experiencing a mental health crisis.”

In recent years, police and advocates for reform have both stressed that officers are called for too many situations, some beyond their role. 

“We can talk to a person, but we can’t sit there and talk and try to figure out a safety program for them all in the same night,” Bingham said.

Social workers’ ability to follow up on cases could also prevent people from further entanglement with law enforcement, he said. 

“Hopefully it prevents that next call from coming because we’ve been able to provide a level of intervention,” said Stricker, with Northeast Kingdom Human Services. “So that it’s not law enforcement showing up next time.”

Northwestern Counseling and Support Services, serving Franklin and Grand Isle counties, has had a similar embedded program for the past five years. Social workers with the agency cooperate with the St. Albans Police Department and the state police barracks in the city.

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“Pretty quickly, I was able to assimilate with the officers and gain that trust and respect, and then more importantly the outcomes on scene proved to be very effective,” said Josh Cate, a crisis service specialist with the agency who works with St. Albans police.

The immediacy of having a social worker on scene is valuable to people, he said.

“As opposed to a police officer saying, ‘Here’s a card; I’ll have somebody call you,’” he said.

And he described being able to help in situations where people had barricaded themselves inside their homes, fearful or distrusting of responding police officers.

“I’ve talked through windows; I’ve talked through doors; I’ve been allowed in spots police haven’t been allowed in,” he said, explaining that his presence may have been a factor in preventing violence between citizens and officers.

Cate said he believes the program in northwestern Vermont — which Gov. Phil Scott highlighted in February — has relieved stress on police agencies and even improved officers’ understanding of mental health crises. 

Part of the recent national discussion about policing has called for defunding departments — and instead funding social work and other programs that could prevent police calls and crime.

Steve Broer, director of behavioral health services at Northwestern Counselling, said the success of the program there has been because of collaboration, though, not replacement.

“It’s the combination of the officer and the mental health person working together that actually makes it a successful encounter,” he said.

As the Kingdom nonprofit looks to hire its two embeds, it also hopes to expand the program south into Caledonia County.

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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