Wheeling police expanding social worker program

As activists across the U.S. call for police budgets to be slashed and more funding for social services, the Wheeling Police Department is set to expand its social worker program.

The department has two full-time social workers and an opening for a part-time social worker. This week, the village board unanimously supported changing the part-time job's status to full-time.

The extra hours are needed to address growing community needs and changing service demands, officials said.

If the board formally approves the change at its next meeting July 19, a social worker will be embedded with the police department's afternoon shift and be available to provide immediate assistance in a variety of health- and safety-related situations. That includes working with officers and investigators on sensitive cases and providing services and referrals and following up as needed.

"A professional case worker with an ability to perform immediate triage for a variety of issues ... and make immediate referrals will be of great service to the village," Police Chief Jamie Dunne said.

The afternoon shift, which runs 3 to 11:30 p.m., was chosen because the majority of calls that need social service assistance occur during those hours, Deputy Police Chief Al Steffen told the village board.

"For years, our social workers have met police at the intersection of crime and trauma," Steffen said. "It's not just the victims who suffer trauma. It is also witnesses, friends and even family members of suspects, with whom we find ourselves increasingly referring to our counterparts in social services."

The salaries and benefits of one of the full-time social workers have been covered by federal grants, as has the part-time position's. The village covers one of the full-time social workers.

Under the proposed arrangement, the village would be responsible for about half the salary and benefits of the newly full-time social worker position, as well as the salary and benefits of one of the other full-time social workers.

That would result in about $31,000 in additional annual village spending the first year, with the cost rising as the employee receives pay raises, Village Manager Jon Sfondilis said.

Sfondilis called the growing focus on social work by police departments "an important agent in the formula of modern policing."

And as Steffen noted, "the pendulum of public opinion" is swinging in such a way that police departments find themselves expanding roles of social workers to help people in ways that a traditional response to a 911 call can't.

Trustee Mary Krueger asked if the change would affect funding for police officers or staffing levels. Steffen assured her it wouldn't.

"I feel that this enhances our service and gives us another tool and another partner," he said. "It doesn't take anything away from us at all."

The Buffalo Grove, Des Plaines, Elgin, North Aurora, St. Charles and Lombard police departments are among the suburban agencies with social workers. Their responsibilities differ.

Buffalo Grove's social worker responds to some calls with officers, such as complaints about hoarding and well-being checks, Chief Steve Casstevens said. She also follows up on domestic violence calls and those involving mental health issues.

"She helps victims get orders of protection, helps them navigate the system, takes them to court if they need a ride (and) helps them find shelter," Casstevens said. "She is able to do a lot of the follow up work that police officers just don't have the capacity to do."

In Des Plaines, officers handle emergency calls and refer people in need to their in-house social worker. That employee typically doesn't respond to emergency calls with officers, Chief David Anderson said.

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Wheeling Police Chief Jamie Dunne Courtesy of Wheeling police
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