Winchester’s police chief is asking the town’s selectmen to hire a licensed social worker for his department. Chief Mike Tollett says his officers spend much of their time handling calls about disputes, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental distress, people trespassing because they need a place to sleep and other problems that go way beyond law-breaking.
“All of this extra stuff that we deal with now as police — we are not social workers, we’re not mental health counselors, we’re not marriage counselors, but so much of our job is counseling and doing all of those things,” Tollett told The Sentinel’s Paul Cuno-Booth.
This is not a new development. Inherent in the famous police credo “To protect and serve” is the idea that law enforcement is only a part of what police are charged with. They’ve always arbitrated disputes (or sent them on to the courts or other officials). They’ve helped those with addictions, or mental illness, or who are in need of housing — so-called “welfare checks.” At their best, local police have had many roles in the community beyond investigating crimes and handing out tickets.
The thing is, they’re not trained for many of those roles, which have become more complex and specialized over the years. Perhaps some of the training-related recommendations of the state Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency will help in that regard.
But, as Tollett notes, there are people better-equipped for some of those circumstances. His pitch is for a part-time social worker who, presumably, could take a hand-off of cases from his officers and follow up to get them the services they really need.
It’s a great idea, and one he says pre-dates the social turbulence over policing after the killing of George Floyd in May. That incident in Minneapolis, and subsequent ones in Wisconsin and elsewhere, have reignited not only questions of racial justice, but also the debate over the role police serve, and ought to serve, in our society.
The “defund the police” rallying cry, while it might to some be taken literally, is actually a call not for leaving communities police-less, but for reimagining how to use the resources now put into law enforcement to better serve those in need. Such as exactly what Tollett is suggesting.
The question, then, isn’t whether adding social-work skills to the department is a good idea. It is. It would allow Winchester’s officers to focus more on crime prevention and investigation, while bringing a more-focused approach to helping those whose problems aren’t crime-related, but who nonetheless end up interacting with the police.
How best to make that shift? We expect Tollett’s idea is to add the part-time social worker salary to his department’s budget. The “defund the police” model would add the position, but take the resources from existing department funds. That’s a decision for the town’s selectboard and, ultimately, its voters.
Winchester has, according to its website, 10 full-time officers in addition to Tollett. It’s not a large department, but it is larger than many in the area, where a chief and one full-time officer is not uncommon. In fact, Winchester shares a regional prosecutor with several adjoining towns.
And therein may lie a solution. Under the regional prosecutor program, run by the county attorney, Keene and 10 area towns, including Winchester, pool funds to pay for several prosecutors, who handle cases from all the communities. The same approach might be taken with social work; having one person handling cases for two or more communities or several social workers for a handful or more departments. It’s also plausible the departments could contract with an agency that already does social-service work, perhaps with the aid of a grant.
Ultimately, there’s no question social work has become ingrained in the role of policing, here and elsewhere. The only questions are how best to incorporate it, and how to pay for it.