University of Illinois Police Add Social Workers for More Effective Response to Mental Health Crises

UIPD’s Response, Evaluation and Crisis Help (REACH) initiative pairs social workers with police officers when responding to mental health-related emergencies.

University of Illinois Police Add Social Workers for More Effective Response to Mental Health Crises

Members of UIPD's REACH team are handling mental health-related emergencies in a co-responder model with police officers and social workers on scene. From left to right: Lt. Tim Hetrick (with therapy K9 Winston); Crisis Counselor Amanda Brockway, Crisis Counselor Becky Rowe, Officer Alex Tran (with therapy K9 Lollipop), Officer Michael Mitrou (with therapy K9 Rosie), Officer Elma Halpin, Crisis Outreach Coordinator Megan Cambron, and Behavioral Health Detective Beth Visel.

A student overwhelmed by schoolwork and engaging in self-harm. An international student missing home who has thought about suicide. Another student feeling pressure from the social aspects of college life. A community member demonstrating signs of paranoia and anxiety.

All of those cases and several more came across the desk of Megan Cambron just in September. She is the crisis outreach coordinator at the University of Illinois Police Department, and she supervises the department’s Response, Evaluation and Crisis Help (REACH) initiative. The creation of REACH was spearheaded by University of Illinois Police (UIPD) Chief Alice Cary.

None of those crisis calls are unfamiliar on a college campus, but the unusual part is the way UIPD has begun addressing those calls in a co-responder model, which pairs social workers with police officers. Cambron said the university police department’s REACH pilot program really “took off” when students returned to campus for the fall semester.

“Even in that short time, we’ve seen a need for social work response during many police calls,” Cambron said. “The past 18 months have been challenging for most of us, and particularly difficult for students leaving home for the for the first time and navigating a new environment, establishing positive social supports and taking on new responsibilities all during a worldwide pandemic.

REACH Pairs Cops with Social Workers, Provides Much-Needed Follow Up

REACH is an innovative model with two components. First, social workers employed by the department ride with police officers to respond to mental health-related emergencies where the social workers can provide better on-scene clinical assessments of people in need. Second, REACH acts as a wraparound service to follow-up with those individuals within a few days of the initial emergency call to connect them with community resources that can provide long-term care.

The initial response to crisis and assessing the individual is critical, but the follow-up component is where preventive measures can chip away at recurring issues. REACH does not provide long-term care itself but makes connections with other community organizations that do.

“We cannot simply take a reactive stance to mental health,” Cambron said. “We must be involved in connecting individuals to community resources and providing ongoing support if we want to prevent crises from reoccurring.”

The potential payoff of the REACH initiative is immense. Some of the goals include providing better care to community members in crisis, assuring proper use of emergency resources, decreasing unnecessary hospitalizations and laying the foundation for people in need to seek long-term care that can make a difference in their lives.

“We hope that with a more accurate and appropriate response to mental health crises, we will see a decline in unnecessary transports to the hospital and less involvement in the criminal justice system,” Cambron said.

Program Is a Natural Fit for Policing

Introducing the REACH co-responder model was one of Chief Cary’s top priorities when she joined UIPD in July 2020. The REACH unit was up and running within a year, and two social workers were on patrol for the beginning of the fall 2021 semester.

Cary said that the REACH idea came out of a recognition that law enforcement could do a better job of addressing mental health-related calls for service and also out of feedback from community members who want to see a reduced role for police officers in mental health response.

“REACH is specifically going to address getting individuals in the profession of social work and de-escalation and counseling in the field so that law enforcement can take a step back and professionals in mental health can take a step forward,” Cary said.

In part, it is one of the department’s answers to the national conversation on policing that intensified following the officer-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“That incident made us and entities across the country stop and re-examine what we do and how we do it,” Cary said. “The creation of REACH is one of the answers in how police respond and minimizing the way sworn police officers respond to crisis.”

Though much of their work historically has been done separately, social workers and police officers have a long-standing history of cooperation and are a natural match for a number of reasons.

“In fact, much of the day-to-day tasks of an officer involve social work skills like communication, mediation, conflict resolution, de-escalation, recognizing the signs of addiction and mental illness, and crisis response,” Cambron said.

In addition to accompanying officers on calls, social workers can provide internal training to officers on topics like engagement techniques, communication skills, emotional intelligence, suicide prevention, stress management and community resources.

“The implementation of social work in policing has significant potential to positively impact overall officer wellness as well as police response in the community,” Cambron said.

REACH Leaders Develop First-of-Its-Kind Academy

Training for the social workers themselves quickly became a priority as well. Cambron said it was a priority of the REACH leadership team to make sure that the social workers going into the field were amply prepared for the unpredictable and potentially hazardous nature of the work they were taking on. REACH leaders also wanted to provide an opportunity for social workers and public safety professionals to network with other stakeholder agencies in the area.

The Academy for Social Work and Public Safety Cooperation (ASWPSC) was borne out of those strategic priorities.

The academy is a weeklong training developed by Cambron, the late University of Illinois Police Lt. Aaron Landers and Dr. Michael Schlosser of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute. In developing the training, they consulted with neighboring police departments, the University of Illinois School of Social Work and mental health professionals.

The weeklong training covers de-escalation, evaluation tools, suicide risk assessment, documentation, policy and procedures, radio communication, safety tactics, working as a part of a co-responder team and police culture. It also included scenario-based training with actors.

“Based on anonymous surveys on each session and on the course overall, we feel strongly that the ASWPSC should be offered regularly to other departments and agencies that work with police and are involved in crisis response,” Cambron said. “We are working to make this training easily available to those who could benefit from it.”

An Outline for Law Enforcement Mental Health Response

Many police departments across the country are beginning to hire mental health professionals but may still be figuring out how to train that staff or how to incorporate them into their day-to-day operations.

“REACH provides an outline for that,” Cambron said.

In additional to the academy, REACH leaders are developing a replicable model for how to best utilize social workers in police departments. Part of that is an effort to work with researchers to collect and analyze data and outcomes from its own pilot program, and they have also created a working group with other Illinois college campuses and mental health professionals.

“We think we have a real opportunity here with REACH to solve some issues that we are seeing in our own community, and in assisting police departments across the country with their own response efforts,” Cary said. “Mental health related issues have persisted in our country for far too long, and we have to take a proactive stance in figuring this out.”

Patrick Wade is UIPD’s senior director of strategic communications.

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