Everyone Benefits When Police Departments Hire Social Workers

How one Kentucky agency refocused its officers, saved money — and earned new respect from the community.

By Chief Mike Ward (Ret.)

I’m a big proponent of community policing and have been for years. But it’s my opinion that community policing has failed in one particular area: we have tried to make social workers out of cops, and it just doesn’t work. We’re not wired that way. Social workers do the best social work. Partnering with them didn’t work in our community because there were communication barriers and logistical problems. I heard about police departments hiring social workers, so we set aside money for it and gave it a shot. It’s totally changed our relationship with the community and saved us tremendous resources so we can focus on calls for service involving criminal issues. Police departments hiring social workers is one way we can reduce the resource drain non-criminal calls for service have on the police and other first responders.

In my agency, 67% of our calls for service were non-criminal related. The last I checked, an even higher percentage of police calls for service nationwide are non-criminal related. We hired two social workers to help our department with these calls.

One instance in which they proved invaluable was with a veteran in the community who had been a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam. Those were the guys who took a flashlight and a .45 and went into the tunnels, killing whomever they came across. He would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, shaking from a nightmare. The only thing that would calm him down was seeing someone in a uniform. Eventually our firemen and EMS stopped going because it required too many resources, so my officers were going. God bless them because if they had the time, they’d make a pot of coffee and talk with him until he calmed down, then they’d leave.

When we hired the police social worker (PSW), the veteran was her first case. She sat down and talked with him, got all his information and written permission to be his advocate. She worked with his doctor, got his meds cleaned up, and talked to the VA. We didn’t hear from him for 9 months. She checked on him and made sure he was taking his meds and doing okay.

One day, the fire department called and asked if they could use our PSW. There was an older gentleman who had cancer. He was at home, and every time he’d fall out of bed, his wife would call 911. The fire department would come and put him back in bed, but he refused transport to the hospital. That’s when the squad became concerned and called for our PSW. They found out the wife had early stages of dementia, and he had stage IV cancer and was in serious pain. Our PSW talked the wife into going with them to the hospital. Long story short, they got to the hospital and the doctor said if they had arrived an hour later, the man would have died. Because we had a PSW, we were able to put him into hospice. The man died 48 hours later. He was able to pass away comfortably and with dignity. Our PSW was also able to follow up with the funeral home and help his wife after his passing.

Those two [PSWs] are the busiest people in my department. Officers heard of the idea [of hiring social workers] and thought I was crazy. But I knew the program was successful when one of my oldest, crustiest officers got a call one day and walked up to our PSW and said, “Come with me. I’ve got a call, and I need your help on it.” No matter what they think, officers are still utilizing them.

Now, the communication is prolific between the officers and social workers, because the social workers work for the police department. They’re not a separate organization working for the city anymore. The officers were the ones getting called, but we didn’t know what Social Services was doing. And when we asked them, they [legally] couldn’t tell us! I was able to remove a barrier between law enforcement and Social Services by bringing them into our fold.

Our social workers are not first responders, they’re second responders. They can go on a call if an officer picks them up or calls them to the scene. But primarily, they’ll go through roll call in the morning when there will be notes on what needs follow-up. If an officer is on the scene at night and needs guidance from a social worker, they can call her at home and she has the discretion of providing advice over the phone or scheduling an appointment to go talk to the family. If she feels it is bad enough that she needs to come out, then she would respond and assist the officer at the scene. This happens more often when juveniles are involved. Our social workers are involved in about 98% of our child sex abuse cases. They work with domestic violence victims. They work with people who don’t have health insurance and don’t know how to get it, so they call the office asking for our help. The social workers know who to call to arrange a meeting to get them healthcare. We have people calling our office and asking to speak to our social worker instead of asking to talk to a police officer. Most of the time, my officers just don’t know what resources there are to help people.

Officers are freed up to do what they need to do. We’re solving problems and helping members of our community like I’ve never seen in my career. I have people walk up to me and thank me for what the social workers are doing. Even from an administrative point of view, a social worker is a whole lot less expensive. Traditionally, social workers don’t make a lot of money, so we hired them at the same starting salary as we would hire an officer. I bought them a small car for about $16,000, but I didn’t have to put an additional $15,000 worth of equipment in the car like I would for officers. It costs my agency $10,000 in weapons, uniforms, body armor, etc, to outfit one new police officer. I probably spent less than $1,500 on jackets, polo shirts, plus a portable radio for the social workers, and I think I bought them a pair of boots for the winter.

Chief Mike Ward (Ret.) spent 40 years in uniform and retired as the chief of the Alexandria Police Department in Kentucky. His model of integrating law enforcement and social services is being replicated in other areas of the state and beyond. In addition to police-community relations and social work, he speaks on behalf of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) on issues pertaining to domestic violence investigations, PTSD treatment for police, police training best practices, transparency and accountability in policing, and more.

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