Praise and Caution for Social Worker Response Plans

Praise and Caution for Social Worker Response Plans

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

According to a Washington Post database, police officers have fatally shot nearly 1400 people with mental illness since 2015. The interpretation of that data by critics has yielded the presumption that the police faced with those encounters are not competent to deal with the mentally ill. Police leaders have long recognized that many of the calls that come to the police do not require the services of an armed government agent, but that the 24/7 availability, fast response time, and easy 911 call have evolved police to be the community catch-all for any complaint or problem.

Somewhere in between the accusation that police officers are ill-equipped to deal with the mentally ill and the reality that many calls could safely be diverted from a police response, many agencies are experimenting with alternate responses using mental health workers. These experiments are a good way to determine whether the public is safer when police stay away, but studies of the programs may be missing important information.

Social research is very different from “hard science” research such as chemistry. The scientific method begins with a hypothesis that is very narrow in scope. That hypothesis is then tested by conducting an experiment that is designed to look at identifiable outcomes. For example, if a researcher believes that a new drug’s effectiveness is affected by temperature, the drug can be tested at various temperatures to measure what, if any, differences exist when that influence changes. If the outcome of the experiment remains consistent when the experiment is duplicated, researchers can make a definitive statement that pill X works equally well whether stored in the refrigerator or on the shelf. Many of the elements of such an experiment will be based on known characteristics in science based on unchanging laws of physics.

In social research individual characteristics are very difficult to isolate. Philosophically, it has been said that no one steps into the same river twice, since the constant flow creates a new set of conditions every moment. Similarly, it is said that when we examine an apple by cutting into it, we fundamentally change the apple. So when social worker response is declared a success, what research justifies that claim?

A recent press release on the Denver Support Team Assistance Response (STAR)  program reported that their pilot study showed the team responding to 748 calls with no arrests and no police presence. This proclamation of success, while encouraging, must be tempered by a close examination of the cost and benefits of the program. In some jurisdictions, police budgets are being reduced in order to transfer funds to a non-police response. A shifting of funds belies claims that removing some calls for police services will “free up” officers to handle serious criminal calls. If police staffing is reduced in order to fund social worker response, this advantage falls away.  The STAR program gets referrals from the law enforcement dispatch center where communication personnel screen incoming requests. During the six-month pilot period, there were 95,000 emergency calls of which 2,500 met the STAR criteria even though the supplemental service team responded to fewer than a third of those.

From these initial numbers, the heralded STAR team responded to less than 1% of total calls, and assuming eventual capacity to respond to all calls fitting their criteria, would be responding to 3% of calls.

Another question is whether the program evaluators are assuming that there would not have been an equally peaceful resolution of the calls had uniformed officers responded. Despite claims to the contrary, police officers are very capable of calmly dealing with persons in a variety of crises. The STAR program states that no arrests were made on the calls they handled. Of course, no one on the STAR team could make an arrest anyway, and that doesn’t mean that an arrest would have been appropriate in some of their responses. If likely crimes are observed by non-law enforcement responders, do these offenses simply go unaddressed? If, in order to maintain the trust of the civilian responders they must ignore criminal activity, what is the ultimate cost of non-enforcement? For better or worse, the criminal justice system has been a major portal to mental health services. Judges often order evaluations or treatment, which will not happen if the justice system is not involved. That may be a good thing or not, but it is something that those evaluating the program should measure.

Observers must consider the favorable conditions under which a program such as STAR operates. The Denver model is currently only available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Working day shift, as every cop knows, is different than nights and weekends. If the program’s availability is expanded, the time of day of incidents must be measured. Another factor is that STAR team members have no legal obligation to remain at a dangerous scene and, in fact, are not summoned to known dangerous scenes. This makes the success numbers a lot easier to accumulate than the police officers who have to go to any call, any time, regardless of the risk. STAR type programs are not likely to save lives, because the calls are not determined to be high-risk calls where weapons, assaults, and serious property damage has occurred.

Keeping officers doing what they are legally bound to do and are best trained and equipped to do is a great objective. We just need to be sure we don’t diminish their capacity to take the hard calls.