Editorial: Shared police social worker could be model idea
Good cops must have some social-work skills to be effective.
Being a good listener, dispensing sound advice, knowing when to use patience or a firm hand to defuse tense situations so no one gets hurt. It's all part of the job on most nights.
Good cops also will tell you they are not fully equipped to deal with many of the complex underlying problems that contribute to chronic cases of substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic violence. Those are the cases where officers return to the same houses and handle the same cases time and time again.
A program designed to help is being tested in McHenry County. It gives police access to a shared social services professional to help get to the root of those problems, with the goal of reducing recidivism and ensuring that residents get the help they need.
It's an effort to give police new approaches and knowledge that might offer more effective options than an arrest and a trip to jail or an escalating physical confrontation. The approach also could help in reducing long-term costs associated with arrests and court processing.
Some suburban departments, such as Lake in the Hills, have a full-time social worker on staff, but many don't. This shared approach could be a model for departments that can't afford that commitment. We urge organizers to share their findings.
McHenry County's mental health board launched their test program in March and it has been extended until November 2018. The Cary and Algonquin police departments were the first to sign on. Crystal Lake and Woodstock have since joined.
The program allows participating agencies to refer behavioral health cases to Cristina Mendoza of the Aurora-based Association for Individual Development. She assesses needs, meets with the individuals involved and determines the resources that could be most beneficial for them.
"Sometimes a uniform can intimidate the community, and that right there builds a barrier," Mendoza told our Lauren Rohr. "But when you have somebody who works with the officers but is also there primarily for the community, that makes a difference in how they perceive the department."
In nine months, Mendoza has accumulated 126 cases. Some include multiple individuals from the same family. Mendoza spends one day a week at each department, while also making home or out-of-office visits. Early returns are positive, with police reporting seeing a significant effect on some of the community members with whom officers interact regularly.
Access to a social services professional is an important tool every cop should have. The McHenry County program can help provide a resource and a model for communities where the service is lacking.