ERLANGER, Ky. — Central to recent nationwide calls to defund police departments is the idea that many of the situations law enforcement officers encounter daily are societal and generational social issues. One proposed solution: Reallocate police funding to hire social workers.
Several Cincinnati-area law enforcement agencies already employ social workers, or work in partnership with them, to provide help and follow-up to their communities.
The Alexandria and Erlanger police departments in Northern Kentucky have garnered national attention for their police social work programs, highlighted most recently in this feature from The Guardian.
The Alexandria Police Department has two social workers on staff, working in tandem with police officers. The pair step in to help people with substance use disorders, people with mental health issues and people experiencing homelessness by connecting them with resources and providing basic necessities.
Kelly Pompilio was the first social worker to be hired in Alexandria in 2016. At the time, she was the only police social worker in Kentucky. The department hired a second social worker in 2018.
Pompilio said in August she usually follows up with about 70 people each month, and that number has increased since the start of the pandemic. She said the model works well because social workers have time to connect with people in ways that police officers cannot. Pompilio provides follow-up service to those who request it and can connect people to resources to get help more consistently and quickly than an investigator.
“Officers just don't always have the time for following up with people, making sure that they're going through the steps that they need to,” Cooper said. “Our social workers buy us a lot of time. They have the time to invest in dealing with people and getting them in contact with the people they may need.”
In Erlanger, police social worker Becky Strouse spends her Wednesdays out on the streets — not in a cruiser, but in a minivan.
"I deliver groceries every week to different people who may be homebound, for whichever reason," Strouse said. "No, it's not a nine-to-five; I'm on call 24-7."
"She brings me good stuff and I really appreciate what she brings me," said Albert Tobergte, one of the people to whom Strouse delivers food. "I feel a closer bond with the police department since Becky is coming."
Strouse's role is modeled after Pompilio's. In fact, Strouse was a social worker prior to joining the city. She finds herself working as much with code enforcement as with the police.
Strouse said she is now fighting misinformation about what she does.
"There's really no defunding the police for my position," Strouse said. "But also we're not responding by ourselves to calls. We're more of a second responder, and if we are responding to calls with officers, we aren't going alone. We aren't going into gun battles without guns and vests. It's just being misportrayed."
City leaders in both Erlanger and Alexandria said they had fielded calls and requests from other municipalities – some local – asking how to set up similar police social worker programs, especially in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
The city of Cincinnati is a much larger and busier police jurisdiction, with social workers in its homicide division and in three of five districts. These social workers have police radios and sometimes respond to calls with officers.
Karen Rumsey is CPD's victim advocate, a social worker paid by the department, and runs a small team that includes interns from the University of Cincinnati and other local schools. She's been with Cincinnati police since 2014, when she left a role with Hamilton County Job and Family Services.
"There was just such a need in the community," Rumsey said. "I tell myself, 'This is what I would want if it was me.'"
Rumsey called her job 24-7, always on call. She has one other social worker on her team, plus the interns.
The team has expanded its role beyond just the homicide unit, though. They do monthly follow-up calls to victims' families, as well as outreach in high crime areas, and they provide crisis intervention to help immediately after a traumatic event like the Fifth Third Center shooting. Rumsey is often also at the scene of emotional investigations to support family members and witnesses.
"It’s just the right thing to do," she said. "We provide dignity, respect, and we de-escalate."
She is also behind the department's Emmy-nominated "Shoot This, Not That" program, which encourages children affected by gun violence to pick up a camera and document their world.
The creation of the department's witness protection - CCROW - program is also Rumsey's work. The program helps ensure witnesses feel comfortable testifying, after a key witness in a 2015 murder case didn't show up because of intimidation.
Still, Rumsey said, she feels like many in the community don't know her unit exists or what it does. She said CPD was the only department in Ohio with staff social workers until the mid-2000s.
"I want the community to know we are here, we provide services to victims of all crimes," she said. "I think every police department should have their own set of in-house social workers who can handle the needs of people who find themselves victims of crime."
The Cincinnati Police Department contracts out other social workers, Lt. Steve Saunders said.
Mobile crisis teams of licensed social workers from UC Health operate out of Cincinnati Police Districts One, Three and Five, according to Saunders.
Officials with UC Health said the group of more than one dozen workers accompany officers on field calls, make follow-up visits and help within the CPD districts and even across Hamilton County in other agencies. Their focus is on de-escalation and connecting people to resources.
The Cincinnati police's DVERT (Domestic Violence Early Response Team) outreach is a partnership with Women Helping Women. It began in 2018 as a plan to better respond to domestic violence calls and connect victims to services, as well as follow up after first police contact. It is funded by the Ohio Attorney General's Office, according to our partners WVXU.
Saunders also noted the department's involvement in the local homeless outreach group, as well as mental health response team (MHRT) training required in the police academy.
Between grocery deliveries on a Wednesday in Erlanger, Strouse noted her presence — and that of social workers in other departments — helps the officers, too.
"Most of the calls that officers go to are social in nature," Strouse said. "Those problems didn't just happen overnight, so we can't expect officers who have just five to ten minutes with them to solve those generational issues."
WCPO 9 News reporter Sina Gebre-Ab contributed to this report.