After launching a pilot program in January to explore deploying social workers for noncriminal calls, Fayetteville Police Department officials plan to make the initiative more permanent starting next year.
FPD partnered with the UA School of Social Work this year to develop a dual response model allowing social workers to respond to calls regarding homelessness, substance abuse, mental health crises and other noncriminal concerns. FPD was one of 33 departments nationwide that received a $250,000 Department of Justice grant in October to incorporate social workers into its workforce.
“It is a pilot program, so it’s very dynamic at this point,” Fayetteville Police Chief Mike Reynolds said. “With our partners at the University of Arkansas School of Social Work, we’re looking to their expertise, and we’re ready to pivot at any time.”
Reynolds first proposed the idea of partnering with social workers in January 2020 after noticing the large number of noncriminal calls the department receives, he said. Fayetteville officers respond to 50,000-55,000 calls per year, and around 4,000 of those calls are noncriminal. Reynolds thinks employing social workers at the department could help provide support for people involved in noncriminal calls.
Although the program is currently in its pilot phase, Reynolds expects to begin hiring permanent staff by spring or early summer 2022. Using the $250,000 grant and an additional $250,000 provided by the Fayetteville city government, the department will hire two full-time social workers and two Crisis Intervention Team officers who will work together to respond to noncriminal calls. Reynolds hopes to expand the team in the future as well, he said.
Lt. Tim Shepard oversees the program and has helped develop the dual response model with UA graduate student and social work intern Steven Greathouse and social work professors at the UofA, he said. The department also hired a second UA intern, Kyrene Thomas, in the fall.
Shepard began developing the program in January 2020. The hardships community members faced at the beginning of the pandemic — and public calls for nationwide police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a fomer Minneapolis officer — made the need for social workers in the department more evident, he said.
“The events which happened after COVID and all the protests made us even more aware of the need for mental health and crisis services and social services,” Shepard said.
In the summer, Shepard paired Greathouse with a CIT officer, and they responded to noncriminal calls regarding homelessness, mental health crises and substance abuse, he said.
Greathouse provides clients with resources and referrals to local organizations that can help meet their needs, he said. He has referred clients to 7hills Homeless Center, the Salvation Army of Northwest Arkansas and the Washington County Crisis Stabilization Unit, a short-term intervention facility for people experiencing mental health crises.
“If they’re very clearly in crisis and they’re wanting to seek treatment, then rather than charging them and arresting them, (the officers) will refer them to me,” Greathouse said. “And we’ll connect them with resources to get some effective outpatient treatment or rehab.”
Shepard hopes the program can help reduce incarceration rates for those involved in nonviolent incidents, he said. Those arrested for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession and other drug law violations, often end up in jail or prison for months, years or even decades. One in every 5 incarcerated people in the U.S. is being detained or imprisoned for a nonviolent drug offense, according to federal, state and local prison and jail data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative.
“Right now we are spending a lot of resources on people who, if their situation was made better, we probably wouldn’t even be in contact with them,” Shepard said. “Those are the people we want to get connected with services, so they don’t have to interact with police.”
Currently, Greathouse can respond to noncriminal calls regarding mental health concerns and other welfare issues. However, for more potentially dangerous calls, police officers assess the situation before social workers or CIT officers enter the scene, Shepard said.
Greathouse has also responded to many calls from individuals experiencing homelessness and connected them with temporary and transitional housing services. The need for affordable housing is one of the most pressing in Northwest Arkansas, Greathouse said.
Another goal of the internship is to collect data from the pilot program and see how the dual response model can cater to the community’s needs, Greathouse said.
“What we learned through the summer and the fall session is that there’s even a greater need than we originally thought,” Shepard said. “There are more uses for social workers than just limiting it to mental health calls.”
Greathouse thinks the program could open the door to a new way of policing that focuses on community service rather than authoritarianism, he said.
“I think Fayetteville has a really open-minded outlook on what community policing needs to look like,” Greathouse said. “They understand that, over time, our community is adapting and our policing needs to adapt with our community in order to meet their needs.”