Part II of II.
By Beth Lawrence
The Sylva Police Department now has help handling calls that don’t necessarily require police action, as a Community Care Liaison will coordinate services for non-law-enforcement cases.
The program is the brainchild of Western Carolina University Professors Katy Allen and Cyndy Caravelis.
Early on, Police Chief Chris Hatton liked the idea but was reluctant because SPD is already shorthanded and tightly budgeted, so an internship position was created to fill the need and collect data on the program’s impact.
“My mind is always open to new ideas, especially ideas that don’t cost the police department anything and anything that improves service,” Hatton said. “But if it’s free and it makes our service better to people, then my ears are wide open about it.”
The death of George Floyd in May 2020 when three Minneapolis police officers knelt on him for over nine minutes spurred Allen and Caravelis to wonder about the impact a social worker might have on policing efforts in rural police departments.
Following the incident, discussions grew about the need for social workers in law enforcement. There was no data for such programs at rural agencies, so Allen and Caravelis began to explore how to create data.
Together, they spoke to Hatton about placing a social worker at SPD. Collaborations to make that a reality began in summer 2020.
The intern will act as a Community Care Liaison following up on cases officers believe might benefit from a social worker who can coordinate healthcare, mental healthcare or other community services such as housing and food. The liaison can also follow up on cases that do require police action reaching out to crime victims to offer support services.
Intern Chris Martinez worked with both professors, SPD, and on his own to create a framework for the position.
Officers responding to calls can fill out a referral form, created from scratch by Martinez, who will reach out to the person or family to provide assistance that officers don’t always have access, time or training to provide.
Some departments use social workers for crisis intervention, but SPD’s liaison will only offer followup.
Martinez created the program from the ground up coordinating with local nonprofits, mental health and healthcare agencies to learn what they can and cannot offer and created a database of aid organizations. In addition to the referral form, he has designed other related documents for the program.
“I was researching other programs; I was wanting to see what they have done,” he said. “A lot of it in the beginning is going to be trial and error.”
The concepts come from larger departments, but must be tailored to a small town of fewer than 2,700.
The position is only a few weeks old, but it is already having a positive impact, according to Hatton.
“A lot of what Chris is doing is really not law enforcement, but it’s something that nobody else is doing either,” Hatton said. “But it fills a niche. I feel like we know better than anybody; we see people that are headed for crisis, so if we can intervene, we can save ourselves and that person a lot of heartache.”
Hatton’s goal for the program is to make people’s lives better with police service.
Because the program is being built from scratch there will likely be a lot of experimentation.
“A lot of it feels like a Hail Mary pass at the end of the game; it may not work out, but what if it does,” Hatton said. “Some of the stuff we’re doing, some of it has been tried before, unsuccessfully, and some of these things are a whole brand new idea. We’re calling some of these community resources and asking them for things that maybe nobody’s ever asked them before.”
Martinez has already helped coordinate support for someone experiencing a mental health crisis. SPD assisted Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in securing a commitment to a mental health facility. The person has previously experienced a trauma and occasionally goes through crisis.
“He starts what I call a spiral,” Hatton said. “And it just gets worse and worse until he ends up committing a crime or committing enough crimes to where he gets arrested. One of our most recent dealings with this person, he told one of our officers, ‘You know this all ends with a physical confrontation.’ The officer said, ‘No it doesn’t have to be that way.’ He said, ‘No this happens to me every year. This is just the way it goes until I end up in jail.’ This is why Chris (Martinez) is here.”
The person has been the reason for multiple calls, sometimes several a day, for both SPD and the sheriff’s office, but the calls were not always because the individual was breaking a law.
Martinez’s job is to step in and try to provide intervention and help before there is an arrest, a criminal charge or before someone is hurt. Through Martinez, SPD was able to secure an involuntary commitment before the person wound up with a crime on his record.
“Now he’s getting mental health treatment,” Hatton said. “He hasn’t been hurt, didn’t hurt anybody. There’s no crime been charged, so we’re calling that a win.”
Law enforcement often receives calls about mentally ill individuals or homeless persons, with the caller expecting police to do something, but there is nothing police can do unless a crime occurs. These kinds of calls take away from time they could dedicate to solving crimes or responding to other emergencies.
Martinez believes the position will benefit SPD and potential clients.
“It has been done in big cities. There’s actually one in Raleigh … called ACORNS program; there’s one called CAHOOTS,” he said.
“From what I’ve seen from (other) programs, it’s definitely helped reduce the workload of officers. It lets them go out there and do their jobs more efficiently. They don’t have to respond to the same calls over and over again.”
While ACORNS is newer, Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program has been in use for over 30 years.
Martinez believes such programs should have been put in place “long ago” at all law enforcement agencies.
“A lot of these programs are in big cities. They have lots of funding, lots of officers, dedicated paid social workers,” he said. “I would love to see how a program like this does in rural areas such as this.”
Hatton hopes the program can help the WCU professors figure out how to conduct such efforts on a small scale. If the program succeeds, he hopes the town considers a permanent position in the future.
“It’s clear that people are looking to change the way policing is done; the problem is, none of us know what it looks like yet,” he said. “It seems very promising, so let’s find out if it does (produce results).”
In the four weeks since the program has been operating, Martinez has already handled seven referrals.
To contact Sylva Police Department’s new community care liaison, call 586-2916 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit SPD at 755 W. Main St.