Police need more resources to succeed
Make no mistake, it would be a stretch to say a partnership between Western Carolina University and the town of Sylva’s Police Department is the model for the future of policing in small-town America.
The police force’s use of a student social worker to help police in certain situations, however, is an example of at least one way policing results can be improved in an era when there is a clamor for law enforcement reform.
Two Western Carolina University professors — Assistant Professor of Social Work Katy Allen and Criminal Justice Professor Cyndy Caravelis — began studying the interaction of social work, criminal justice programs, and policing, concentrating on how it could work in small, rural areas. The pair approached Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton about potentially embedding a student social worker within the police department, one that would be free to taxpayers.
“Given the pretty charged climate around policing at the time we were trying to start this, I think it would have been easy for him to shut the door and say, ‘This is how we do things here,’” said Caravelis.
Hatton, however, jumped at the chance.
“Police officers, we’re not given a whole lot of tools. Jail is the main tool we have,” Hatton told Smoky Mountain News Staff Writer Holly Kays.
Like many small-town police forces, Sylva’s officers are busy. They went on 13,500 calls in 2020 and total arrests have more than doubled between 2016 and 2019. Many of those calls are not really the type police officers are trained for: perhaps it’s a homeless person hanging around a dumpster or a person with chronic mental health issues who is making life tough on neighbors or a family member. These calls often involve the same people over and over and can potentially take hours to clear, leaving officers frustrated, knowing they don’t have the tools to fix the problem.
One of the most interesting things Hatton told SMN is that his officers jumped at the chance to hand these cases off. The program, called Community Care, and its intern Chris Martinez, handled four cases in its first week.
Martinez developed the program from the ground up with the help of his professors, developing referral sheets and even attending the National Conference of Police Social Work.
“This arrangement is perfect, because the citizens are definitely winning, I’m winning because I’m providing better services, and Chris is winning because he’s about to graduate college, and he’s going to have this experience to take with him,” Hatton said.
Now, the professors are studying the results and preparing a second intern to work with the police department. Quantifying results are difficult, but the reality is police officers aren’t social workers. They aren’t equipped with the skills and resources that are a normal part of a social worker’s training. And as the number of calls reveals, they just don’t have the time.
Defund the police? No, not a good idea. But anyone who’s been paying attention can see that police reform involving social workers, mental health professionals and others is going to provide a better outcome for communities. It just makes sense.
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Excellent essay, as usual. Moving social services intervention and psychological care out of police hands and letting them do the job they were trained for does make perfect sense. The phrase "defunding the police" was a foolish, ill-thought-out idea. It should not have been called that.