N.C. police, student pilot program enhances community crisis response

In the program, a social work intern from Western Carolina University is placed in a local PD to serve as a community service liaison


This article is reprinted with permission from Smoky Mountain News

By Hannah Mcleod
Smoky Mountain News

SYLVA, N.C. — When Western Carolina University Professors Katie Allen and Cyndy Caravelis approached Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton with a proposal for a Community Care pilot program, using social work interns in the police department he was understandably skeptical. Crisis response involving a student intern seemed like a risk he was not willing to take.

“His first response was ‘absolutely not. We can have them here for follow-up, but they will not be responding,’” said Caravelis. 

In the end, Hatton agreed to take on the Community Care Program, and the results are beginning to speak for themselves. At an Oct. 27 meeting of the Sylva Board of Commissioners, Caravelis laid out some of those results. 

“I want to thank [the chief] for his trust, because this was a pilot program, this was ‘hey can we try this? It’s not going to cost you anything, we would like to train up some interns,’” Caravelis said of the start of the project. 

During the summer of 2020, a national conversation erupted around policing in the United States following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

“There was a call in the community for non-sworn personnel to respond to calls and to shift away from a more punitive response to a lot of calls that weren’t necessarily punitive in nature,” said Caravelis. 

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A lot of that conversation involved the implementation of more non-emergency social workers in the police setting. After deciding they wanted to work through this issue and understand how social workers could fit in the picture, Caravelis, a professor of criminology and criminal justice, and Allen, a professor of social work, spent the next year researching to understand what that would look like. 

What they found was that a lot of urban areas with the capacity and budget have crisis response intervention teams that can be deployed. However, 90% of police departments in the United States look like Sylva’s, with 15 or fewer officers, and there was no model for non-sworn response in these rural areas. 

“The vast majority of calls that we get from a law enforcement point of view are typically non-criminal,” said Caravelis. “We have a lot of mental health issues, we have a lot of people that are unhoused, all of the ramifications around drug use and what that leads to. But the only number they know is to call law enforcement, that’s who they call for all of these things. And the problem is, the only tool that law enforcement has is intervention in the form of arrest, citation or warning, and that’s it. They don’t have a lot of tools to respond.”

The Community Care Program began in October of 2021 at the Sylva Police Department. This service consists of placing a senior-level or graduate-level WCU intern from the department of Social Work within Sylva PD to serve in the role of Community Care Liaison. The Community Care Liaison’s primary functions are to follow up with citizens involved in police calls for service and to connect victims with community services. When a police officer encounters an individual that they identify as someone who could use additional attention, the officer submits a referral to the Community Care Liaison. 

“When our social work interns come to the department, they are not trying to replace sworn officers; they are trying to work in partnership with us so that we can effectively find out exactly what’s going on,” said Caravelis. “What we say is that we are trying to do pre-crisis intervention. If we see someone who is struggling, before someone calls law enforcement, let’s get someone out there to sit with them and find out what’s going on, how can we maybe help shift things before it becomes something that does require a sworn response.”

Allen and Caravelis thought that Sylva could work for the program because of its size and the ability, through the university, to have social work interns that were also trained in criminal justice. 

“The other thing is the culture of Sylva PD is so unique in Jackson County in that Chief Hatton was open and willing to try new things,” said Caravelis. “We knew that the citizens of Sylva wanted us to try, they wanted to see something that wasn’t just a straight law enforcement response.”

[RELATED: How a mental health co-response term maintains community safety]

The program’s mission statement is “to support the Sylva community by offering voluntary social work services in partnership with law enforcement.”

The Community Care Program has five major objectives. The first is to expand the law enforcement toolbox by increasing officer response options beyond arrests, citations and warnings. 

“What we knew in speaking with our law enforcement officers, is that we have what are called frequent flyers,” said Caravelis. “There are people that law enforcement officers interact with on a literal daily basis. We were talking with the chief about this. We said, ‘What if we could get someone in there to help fix what’s going on and to help give more options?’”

The second objective is to promote long-term solutions for community members in need through connections with appropriate resources. Because of the frequency of calls, officers often don’t have time to sit down with a person and talk about long-term solutions. When a social worker is available, they can make that referral so that the social worker can deal with long-term solutions. 

“More today than ever, our guys are finding themselves with what we call stacked calls which means there’s more than one thing happening at one time,” said Hatton.  “There’s a lot of times where we don’t have time to spend a whole lot of time with one individual. We do need to fix the problem and we do need to go to the next problem. So that’s where this program really helps.”

The third objective is to promote officer and community member safety through increased opportunities for de-escalation and proactive, pre-crisis intervention. Having a social worker available changes the tenor of the conversation between police and citizens. 

“Oftentimes, if someone is having a mental health crisis, these situations have a tendency to, as soon as law enforcement shows up, they start to get nervous, they start to get panicked. The likelihood that this is going to end up in an unsafe situation for either the officer or the citizen increases,” said Caravelis. 

The fourth objective is to reduce the risk of trauma from negative interactions between law enforcement and community members. 

Last, there is efficiency — the goal of reducing officer workload and streamlining officer workflow. 

Galadriel Levere is the third WCU student to intern with the Sylva Police Department in the Community Care Program. Thus far, referrals have grown with each passing semester. During the first semester, there were eight referrals to the community care liaison, nine the second and 22 during Levere’s semester, which is still underway.

The vast majority of the issues addressed with community care clients have been related to substance use, mental health, unhoused individuals and poverty. 

Community care response data show that for 36% of referrals, the community care program has been able to offer or provide services, and 28% have been referred out to services within the community. 

“I spend a lot of time networking, connecting with all the services in the community,” said Lavere. “I’m still learning, I’m still finding new sources and new people that are like ‘oh I can do that, I could help serve that need.’ So it’s really a community effort here to get people on track to heal.”

For 5% of referrals, Lavere has been able to assist people with accessing services, whether that involves transportation or other necessary resources. Around 23% percent of people referred to Lavere are unable to be reached for contact after an event and another 8% are not eligible for services. 

Community care outcome data show that almost half of all people referred have voluntarily received services. Those services have mainly involved Jackson County Department of Social Services, Meridian, HERE of Jackson County, Center for Domestic Peace, Jackson Neighbors in Need and Rolling Start. 

“We’re finding the value of having somebody that can go out there and sit beside somebody and just talk to them for 30 minutes and figure out, ‘how did you come to this place? If you could have one thing, what would be the most important? What do you see your next step as?’ These kinds of questions that maybe nobody is asking,” said Lavere. 

For Chief Hatton, the Community Care Program has been especially useful in helping people experiencing homelessness. 

[RELATED: 'Care not cuffs': Redefining mental health outreach]

“We’re working the homeless problem here differently than anybody else I know of. We’re working it from the front end instead of the back end,” said Hatton. 

The chief says he often asks other police chiefs what they are doing to address homelessness. What he hears is that few of them are doing anything proactive.  

“We are going, meeting these people. As soon as we find out we’ve got somebody new in town with these kinds of struggles, we tell our officers to do a referral,” said Hatton. “We’re going to go try and find them, meet them, and try to figure out ‘what direction can we get you in, one, so people won’t call the police on you, and two, what do you really need in your life?’”

Between Hatton and Lavere, there is a plethora of stories to share, whether it’s the woman in search of a place to live whom they were able to connect with an employer in Cashiers that offered housing as part of employment or the man in need of everything who willingly offered up his hands for cuffs, unable to believe a police officer would truly be providing some type of service other than arrest. 

The biggest challenge facing the program now is the lack of available resources in Jackson County.

“In large part, the success of this program depends on the level of services that you can connect people to. Do you find those services to be adequate to handle this?” asked Commissioner David Nestler. 

The biggest hang-up, according to Caravelis, is the limited services offered by Meridian, which continuse to be underfunded and understaffed. This plays a role in most referrals related to substance use, which are a large portion of all referrals. 

“That is a big limitation from what we’re seeing, we know the help they need and we are having a hard time sometimes getting them with expediency, getting them the treatment,” said Caravelis. 

Levere also noted the difficulty finding people housing when they need it due to lack of available inventory. Of the 22 referrals she has seen over the last few months, 10 have involved people being unhoused. This only compounds the problem; according to Caravelis, when people have been connected to services that were ultimately unavailable, they are much less likely to accept similar help in the future. 

“It would be good to use a lot of the data that you gather not just for helping the police departments but also advising groups like the county that fund the sort of services to do a better job of giving you something to connect people with,” said Nestler. 

The Community Care Program may have been in place for only three semesters, but there is already a waiting list of other departments that want Caravelis and Allen to help them implement the program.

“We were just in Boone two weeks ago. They got an intern before they knew what to do with them,” said Caravalis. “We are being very careful and selective on how we expand this because as you all know, one bad scenario, one bad interaction can sink the entire ship.”

The program in Boone is up and running. Western Carolina University is getting a community care liaison in the spring semester. Black Mountain has also expressed interest in using the program model. 

“Anyone can get a social worker and give them a seat and say that they have paid lip service to community response — that’s not what this is,” said Caravelis. “We’re not in the business of PR, we’re in the business of actually changing the quality of interactions between our citizens and the officers.”

Allen and Caravelis are seeking grant funding to try and make this position a paid, permanent position within the police department. If they can make that happen, the paid person could still work with an intern each semester to continue growing the program. 

This week, the team is going to Indianapolis for the second annual Police Social Work Conference to network with other programs that are implementing similar programs around the nation. 

“I’m really glad to hear that you’re going to a conference where lots of people around the country are doing the same research that you’re doing,” said commissioner Greg McPherson. “Where do you see the program in 10 years?”

“I think that everyone hit the same critical point at the same time,” said Caravelis. “They said whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working, the issues that we’re dealing with are consistent, especially in a lot of rural areas. I think we’re going to have similar conversations with lots of people. When you talk about what is needed in the department, the future of this is having a fulltime person.”

Additionally, Allen and Caravelis are already working toward a certificate program for criminal justice and social work students in police social work so that they can be up to speed. 

“We are truly creating the next generation of people who can work in policing but with social work experience,” said Caravelis. 

RELATED: IACP 2022: The benefits of employing social workers in your law enforcement agency

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