Woodstock Police Department is moving toward a new partnership with the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office to have officers work alongside social workers while responding to people with mental health issues or other needs that could be addressed by public assistance programs rather than law enforcement.
The model would be a partial revival of a so-called co-responder program the Woodstock police participated in with other agencies four years ago, which placed social workers alongside cops during responses to some calls for service.
There was a benefit to that program, Woodstock Police Chief John Lieb said in a memo, but it was ended because grant funding supporting the idea was depleted.
“Currently, as the community emerges from a period of a pandemic and social unrest, there are many citizens who will need mental health assistance,” Lieb said in the memo.
The city may need to provide some funding to participate in the new program, which would be managed by the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office with municipal police forces across the county allowed to participate, according to sheriff’s office officials who presented the idea to the Woodstock City Council last week.
Lieb was instructed by the council to move forward with beginning the partnership. He was asked to return to the council if a funding approval is needed.
“To get to people at their weakest moment and connect them with resources we have in the community, I think that’s an excellent program,” council member Lisa Lohmeyer said.
McHenry County sheriff’s Sgt. Aimee Knop and sheriff’s office police social worker Alana Bak presented the idea to the council, and noted the helpfulness of having social workers present on even recent calls, including an Oct. 27 standoff with a barricaded suspect at an Algonquin hotel.
“We knew there were some diagnoses, and in our negotiation efforts, we were trying to have the social workers provide guidance to our negotiators. That’s what they’re trained to do. They also offered several times to the victim, or to the suspect, to talk to social worker, and they turned it down. But we tried,” Knop said.
A call earlier the same day involved a Johnsburg area resident in the midst of a mental health crisis, and Bak went to that one with law enforcement officers, too.
She provided guidance on how officers should handle the call.
”It ended up a good situation. Nobody was hurt. That is the key. The person was connected to services, and no one was hurt,” Knop said.
Mayor Mike Turner is supportive of the program, but made clear he does not want social workers tasked with decision-making on potentially dangerous calls for service or other matters that relate to public safety. He wants to keep that duty in the hands of solely police.
“What I’m not interested in is anybody who thinks this is close to saying replacing cops with social workers. I know that’s not what this is, but I want to make clear that is unacceptable to me as mayor,” Turner said.
Over the years, police played a role in directing people in need to social service organizations.
“However, for the past number of years, it has been recognized that the need for assistance is outpacing the supply and officers’ ability at the on-scene level,” Lieb said.
Knop said the social workers will be tasked with following up on a lot of requests for police service in hopes officers can avoid repeatedly dealing with the same person or household. The thought is that police social workers will be connecting people more efficiently to public assistance that could stem emotional, financial and familial dynamics that tend to lead to legal problems and more police calls when not properly addressed.
The plan is for six social workers to be employed by the sheriff’s office, with Bak supervising them, and to have at least one on call at all times of day in case of a police call for service comes in where a social worker’s expertise would be helpful.
Pairing social workers with police on more calls for service has gained popularity across the country, and was included in a recently passed Illinois law. McHenry County could “exceed” the requirements of that law, which took effect July 1, with the program being developed.
The act references the opioid drug crisis and states that overdose deaths “are persistent and growing concerns for Illinois communities.”
The act goes on to say, “Law enforcement officers, other first responders, and co-responders have a unique opportunity to facilitate connections to community-based behavioral health interventions that provide substance use treatment and can help save and restore lives; help reduce drug use, overdose incidence, criminal offending and recidivism; and help prevent arrest and conviction records that destabilize health, families and opportunities for community citizenship and self-sufficiency. These efforts are bolstered when pursued in partnership with licensed behavioral health treatment providers and community members or organizations.”