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Council Perspective: Social worker joining Public Safety to assist with mental illness and chemical health calls

By Mayor Anne Burt

The volume of mental health related calls to 911 has risen substantially over the years nationally, including here in Woodbury. These types of calls can be some of the most complex situations faced by law enforcement today.

Our Police Department developed a Community Support Unit that is improving the quality of service we provide for these calls. The intent is to bridge the gap between 911 calls for a crisis situation and connecting the people in crisis - and their families - to the help they need to cope with these situations for the long term. 

I'm excited to share that we now have additional resources to help with this important initiative. In June, the Washington County Board of Commissioners approved the addition of two social workers to county staff to assist the Sheriff's Office and the Woodbury Police Department when responding to calls that may involve those with a mental illness or chemical health needs.

The new employees will work within a co-response model, which typically consists of law enforcement personnel and mental health professionals working together to respond to calls involving mental health or chemical health needs. This could be a real-time response to an active crisis or a follow-up contact/case management service following an incident.

The benefits of this model are associated with reduced pressure on the justice system and stronger links to community supports. Co-responder models have positive, measurable effects on how law enforcement and other first responders handle mental health crises. Individuals in crisis report feeling less threatened and stigmatized in interactions with co-response teams as compared to interactions with law enforcement alone. 

The model proposed is a ride-along hybrid. In this model, a law enforcement and a mental health professional respond to incidents together, with incidents consisting of active crisis situations and follow-up case management services for mental health incidents.

Each position will cost approximately $100,400. One of the positions is fully funded with money from federal and state governments, and the Woodbury Police Department. This position will work directly with the Woodbury Police Department. The second position will be funded by federal and state money, and $65,600 in county levy funds, and work with Washington County's Sheriff's Office.

The positions are expected to be hired in late 2021 or early 2022.

Public Safety strategic initiative
This new social worker position at Public Safety is one outcome from our Public Safety strategic initiative identified by the City Council in 2019.  

We analyzed our Public Safety response model and identified ways we needed to adapt and enhance how we provide public safety services. With our community diversifying and aging, there are impacts to service demands and how services are provided. The public safety environment is also changing and will continue to change due to local demographics, service demands, labor negotiations, city growth and development, how services are funded, city staffing and succession, state and national political influence and more.

Researching these issues and learning how they may affect services helps the City Council make informed, long-term and strategic decisions regarding not only the city Public Safety Department, but the public safety of the community. 

These new positions represent a critical step forward in effectively providing public safety services across the county and here in our community. They will provide significant expertise in supporting our first responders as they continue to serve and protect our community with compassion and courage.