Protect and serve: Sylva Police Department pilots social work program
On May 25, 2020, the world watched as 46-year-old George Floyd died slowly beneath the knee of a Minnesota police officer — and it continued to watch as an aftermath erupted spanning the gamut from full-on riots to thoughtful discussions about how to make policing kinder and more effective.
Western Carolina University professors Katy Allen and Cyndy Caravelis were two of the many people engaged in such discussions. Allen, an assistant professor of social work, wanted to investigate how social workers might help improve law enforcement. She reached out to Caravelis, a professor of criminal justice, to partner on the effort. The two got deep into the weeds, researching the relationship between social work, police and criminal justice agencies.
“We felt like we had a pretty good grasp of what larger agencies were doing, but nobody had really tried to get with a rural agency,” Caravelis said. “And so we approached Chief Hatton.”
A new tool in the toolbelt
Chris Hatton has been chief of the Sylva Police Department since August 2019, and over the past two years he’s been blown away time and again by how incredibly busy the small-town department is. Though it has a population of only about 2,700, Sylva is both a popular tourist destination and the gateway town for Western Carolina University, which enrolls more than 12,000 students. Traffic counts on the busy N.C. 107 corridor, which Sylva’s force is responsible for policing, exceed 30,000 vehicles per day.
Police officers’ days are full, with actions and calls for service totaling 13,500 in 2020 and total arrests more than doubling between 2016 and 2019. But many of the calls that keep officers occupied aren’t for crimes, traffic accidents or other “typical” police matters. Officers get called out when there’s a “suspicious” person hanging around in a parking lot or somebody undergoing a mental health crisis on the street. Some calls resemble a real-life version of Groundhog Day — officers respond repeatedly, and sometimes daily, to calls involving the same people experiencing the same domestic violence, substance abuse or homelessness situations.
When Hatton got the chance to try addressing these issues by embedding a social worker in his department — free of charge to the taxpayer — he jumped at it.
“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.
But Hatton saw the value.
“Police officers, we’re not given a whole lot of tools,” he said. “Jail is the main tool we have.”
Hatton hoped that the new program, called Community Care , would give the police department a tool that the department’s current work belt just didn’t have. He soon found out that his officers welcomed the change, handing the program’s inaugural intern Chris Martinez four referrals in his first week on the job.
“That’s a lot for one little bitty town,” said Hatton. “But those four things were situations that officers have been dealing with, and like, hey, what we’re doing is not working with these four situations. Here’s a new guy shows up, let’s give him a crack at it.”
Martinez, a senior undergraduate student in WCU’s social work program, had his work cut out for him when he arrived in August. Within the scope of a 30-hours-per-week internship he was charged not only with acting as the department’s first and only social worker, but also with building the program he’d be administering from the ground up, with advice from Allen and Caravelis. He spent the first part of the semester learning about the various resources and programs available in Sylva, and meeting with the people who administer them. He developed the referral sheets and other paperwork associated with the program, and in October he traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, for the inaugural National Conference of Police Social Work .
“I got to see how everyone’s doing it differently,” said Martinez. “I saw people from all over the country — people from California, from Kentucky, Illinois. It’s definitely getting a lot of ground around the country.”
Martinez took what he learned home to Sylva, using it to handle the 12 referrals he received over the course of the semester and to build a program that will allow the next intern to hit the ground running.
Hatton is enthusiastic about the results.
“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.
The long game
Every interaction is different, because every person and situation is different. But Hatton and Martinez both say having a social work approach at their disposal has been helpful on multiple occasions when jail or arrest wouldn’t be.
“We had a situation where one of our officers got called to a person acting suspiciously around the back of a business,” Hatton recalled. “And when he got there, there was a guy basically moving around the dumpster. He was basically hiding and acting creepy.”
It turned out, the guy was homeless and not from Sylva. He’d been hiding behind the dumpster to avoid getting the cops called on him, but when Patrol Officer Bruce Moore approached him, he held his hands out for the cuffs, ready to go to jail. With no food, money or shelter, “he wasn’t opposed to jail,” said Hatton. When Moore suggested that instead he come to the police department for a meal and a talk with a social worker, he thought the officer was teasing him. But he came along, talked to Martinez and was able to get the resources he needed to reach his destination.
“The guy had committed no crimes,” said Hatton. “There’s no victim in Sylva of a crime he committed. He’s just at the bottom of the barrel, and a friend is what he needed.”
Other interactions involve people who live in Sylva but need help to thrive in their home community. For example, said Hatton, a man well known to both town and county law enforcement regularly “goes off the rails” in September of each year, around the anniversary of a traumatic life event. He stops taking his medication and acts out, sometimes getting the police called on him as often as three times a day.
“How it always ends for this guy is he ends up in jail,” said Hatton.
With Martinez on board, this time around the department was able to take a proactive approach. When the behavior started happening, Martinez worked with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office to put together an application for a mental health commitment and ensure the man got the help he needed, rather than a couple hours at the hospital and swift release back to the cycle. Previously, overworked officers in Sylva and Jackson County hadn’t been able to invest the time to navigate that process.
“He’s out now and we’ve had a few calls on him, but it broke that spiral,” said Hatton.
Other times, the outcome is more of a long game. There’s a woman in Sylva who lives out of her car but won’t make the life changes she’d have to in order to qualify for housing help. Another woman lives in a “quite violent” domestic violence situation and declined the services Martinez offered. But in both situations — and especially the second — progress is being made, Hatton said. In the case of the domestic violence victim, Hatton and Martinez visited her at her job and had what Hatton termed a productive discussion, despite the fact that she ultimately decided not to seek services.
“That lady is so much closer now,” said Hatton. “You can’t write it down, but I know this is gonna keep happening in her life, and we took a big step with her. I think that the next time this happens, we’ll see her take advantage of the service.”
The future of policing
With the first semester down, Hatton is enthusiastic about the program, saying that “without any doubt in my mind,” it is helping people.
But quantifying that help is a challenge, and it’s something Sylva and WCU will have to figure out how to do. In the instance of the domestic violence victim, for example, both Hatton and Martinez felt like the conversation was productive, a big step in the right direction. But all Martinez wrote down afterward was that he offered services and was turned down.
“The tricky part now for us is trying to find a way to quantify all that,” said Hatton. “You can’t put a statistic on a piece of paper that tells that story.”
Now it’s a new year and a new semester with a new intern on board. But both Sylva and WCU are excited to continue their partnership as they explore what the future of policing might look like in one small mountain town. It’s not social workers in place of cops, but it’s not simply crime and punishment, either.
“I do think the future of policing is in problem solving, and I think the only way we can problem solve is to collaborate and become interdisciplinary,” said Caravelis.
Now, she and Allen are examining the metrics from that first semester and working with Hatton to refine Community Care into an effective program that will maximize the strengths of both social work and law enforcement. In the long term, Caravelis hopes the police department might hire a social worker as a town employee, bringing institutional knowledge and stable community relationships to the position. Hatton isn’t opposed, though he’s also well aware of the perennially strained budget of the town he works for — as it stands now, he said, the position is doing a lot of good while costing the taxpayers nothing.
The future of rural policing, like the future of an individual, isn’t a clear-cut answer to a clear-cut question. It’s a journey. In that light, Martinez’ perspective on the role of social work in policing may also apply to evolving perspectives on policing itself.
“For me personally, I think a lot of these cases kind of take patience,” Martinez said. “It’s not going to be a home run the first try. It takes a little bit of time.”