Daily Herald opinion: Pilot program will help show if social workers improve outcomes between citizens and police
A new test program in Illinois that pairs trained social workers with police in four metropolitan departments to help on calls involving mentally ill citizens, will lend significantly more data to what already looks like a promising initiative.
Similar programs are under way in communities across the nation. Locally, the McHenry County Sheriff's Department is already expanding its cadre of social workers, and so is the University of Illinois Police Department -- with officials from both agencies saying their own trial runs have proved beneficial.
House Bill 4736 was signed into law this week by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Among other things, it provides seed money so that police in Waukegan, Peoria, Springfield and East St. Louis can pair social workers with police on certain calls.
Their primary focus will be victim assistance, but not every call they go on will necessarily involve a crime. Social workers are invaluable when police are confronted with depressed and/or suicidal people. On calls that involve the threat of violence, trained workers can help de-escalate a tense situation with families, victims, suspects -- and police, by giving them more immediate options.
"We're seeing it all over the place," Alex Vitale, coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, told National Public Radio in a recent report. Where the use of social workers has been tried, he said, the result has been "fewer emergency room visits, which are extremely expensive, fewer jailings, which are even more expensive, and fewer police interventions, which come with a huge risk of force."
Besides helping victims, and cooling off a situation, social workers are expected to follow up -- connecting victims with social services, providing guidance on orders of protection and filing police reports, working with police investigators (within confidentiality laws), and helping guide families of juveniles who have been arrested.
In 2021, Peoria police responded to 1,247 calls that involved a possibly suicidal person, 978 calls involving someone with a history of mental illness and 468 that involved someone with cognitive impairment. Police Chief Eric Echevarria approached Peoria state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth about a co-responder program after reviewing those stats. Now he's eager to see if social workers can improve the outcome of those calls for both citizens and police officers.
So are we, but we're also already hopeful. The FY2023 budget signed into law last month provides $10 million in seed money for the pilot programs this year. It will need a reallocation of funding each year and will expire in 2029.
It probably won't take that long for the pilot program to produce tangible results, and then the question will be how communities pay for the additional personnel they will want to employ.
But that's a question for a later day. Now, let's just see what a difference it makes to give police these additional tools.