Part one of a two-part story.
By Beth Lawrence
Western Carolina University Professor Katy Allen was so moved by George Floyd’s death that she wanted to create change and make a positive impact on policing and social work.
Floyd died in May 2020 after three police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota knelt on him for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Former Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Former officers Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao are awaiting trial.
Allen is director of Field Education and assistant professor of Social Work at WCU.
“When George Floyd was killed, I started seeing a lot of conversation in the national news about social work in law enforcement and how social workers could be utilized in law enforcement,” Allen said. “I felt like it was an important conversation that I should be having with my students, but I didn’t really know where to start.”
So, she reached out to colleague Cyndy Caravelis, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice for ideas.
The pair found grant funding that allowed them and students to gather research on the ways a social work position might improve policing.
During their investigations, they found there was no information on such programs in rural regions, Caravelis said.
Together, they spoke to Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton to explore the idea of having a social worker embedded at the Sylva Police Department.
Collaborations about how to bring a social worker to SPD began in the summer of 2020.
Hatton and interested parties worked to create an internship position. That intern will act as a Community Care Liaison.
Intern Chris Martinez is working with both professors and SPD to create a framework for the position, help those in need and gather data on outcomes.
“From a law enforcement point of view, there are so many types of cases that fall outside of a criminal scope … the situation isn’t inherently criminal, but it’s clear someone needs assistance,” Caravelis said.
Police are often called to handle mental health crises or homelessness. Neither is a crime, but they can create problems for the public and police. Other situations where crime is involved could benefit from followup with a social worker such as domestic violence or victim assistance.
Having a social worker at the department allows officers who respond to such calls to file a referral with the social worker who will reach out to the person or family to provide aid that officers don’t always have access or training to provide.
While some departments use social workers for crisis intervention, SPD will only use the Community Care Liaison for followup.
Martinez has created the program from the ground up coordinating with local nonprofits, mental health and healthcare agencies to create contacts so that he knows where to provide referrals or arrange assistance for those in need. He has also created from scratch forms and documents needed for the job.
The professors provide interns from a pool of candidates in the final semester of their undergraduate program, and the intern is interviewed just as any applicant. So, Allen and Caravelis feel they are prepared to handle the work.
“By the time we send students to agencies for internships we know them fairly well,” Allen said. “We have been talking potentially about having a masters level intern. In our recent conversations we are recognizing that it may be a graduate-level internship in the future.”
Allen is pleased with the work Martinez has done so far and his ability to take initiative.
The internship is unpaid, so there is no cost to SPD.
Allen and Caravelis are using information gathered to create two new modules for their students, an introduction to social work unit for criminal justice students and an introduction to criminal justice unit for social work students.
“So that as we’re educating students to go out into the field, they will be prepared for the modernization of these kinds of interdisciplinary partnerships,” Caravelis said.
The professors hope to gather enough data to show what the program would look like and its impacts so if Hatton chooses to create a permanent position he would have metrics showing how officers’ have been helped and the positive impacts on the community.
“For me, one of the most frustrating parts of the public’s perception about law enforcement is they often forget that service is one the largest roles for law enforcement,” Caravelis said. “It’s not just arresting people; it’s not just pulling people over. Truly, they’re first responders for any and all crises in town.
“My hope for the program long-term is that people will recognize that our law enforcement officers truly want to help the people in this town. I hope that what they see is that law enforcement is an equal partner in getting people out of the process of frequent contact with law enforcement, having some of those issues resolved and getting them the help that they need.”